What can go wrong when we get things right?

I think a lot about how design affects the world. And for a long time, I’ve been thinking about and studying how focusing on one user doesn’t always produce the outcomes we want. Humans are social creatures. We have relationships. Those relationships don’t fade or disappear when we’re interacting with a designed thing. They’re still present as influences.

This goes for users, but it also goes for designers. There’s no lone designer making all the decisions. Even if you’re a team of one, you’re interacting with any number of other people who at least influence the decisions you’re making. Those folks are often making design decisions, themselves.

All of those decisions interact. They originate in personal experiences, training, data, stories.

So, yes, understand your user’s needs. Deeply. Design for them. But look beyond that single user, and the best possible outcome. What happens for other people or organizations? Is it all good? Probably not. What are the ripple effects of getting things right for our core user?

Let’s look at some cases that I put together in a talk for the IA Conference in spring of 2020. Let me know what you think. (I’ll add captions and a transcript soon.)

For more on how data can be weaponized for domestic violence, read this post from Eva PenzyMoog, a UXer who studies this problem extensively.