Otto von Busch, XXI magazine, iss 151, Jan 2017

User-friendliness and Akratic Design

In design we take for granted all things can be reformed and shaped after our intentions: materials, organisms, experiences, processes, everything shares the same plasticity under the will of the designer. And as designers, we are proud to innovate and shape stuff, infuse them with our good intentions and “make things better.” As we also proudly exclaim, we also design welfare, politics and capitalism, and we proudly exclaim we can make all those social dynamics better and more user-friendly too. But what kind of “friendliness” do we actually speak of here, and what friends do we want users to have?

By putting an emphasis on the human-designed aspect we say the conditions of the world are not given by fate but can be remodelled, improved, and redesigned. We believe the plasticity of design is used for progress, for the concerted efforts to make things more “modern” which we put as a synonym for “good.” It is as if design always sees our fellow humans as virtuous, as good friends, and modern humans as even better. Yet, as we know, every new design that is supposed to be friendly or “empower” the user does not always do so. Not only does the intentions backfire, and systems corrupt as they grow complex, but more importantly; people simply don’t do what is best for them and they don’t always have virtuous relation and friendships supporting them to do the good deed.

The old Greek had a word for one of these tendencies in human behaviour: akrasia. Akrasia is the lack of self-control in humans that makes one act against one's better judgement. We may be wise and know what should be done, but we still cannot muster the strength and commitment to do what we know is right. Accumulated on a systemic scale, akrasia starts to look like what Gramsci called “hegemony”; where a whole class of subjugated workers start to value and strive for the very mechanisms that supress them in the first place.

With an akratic approach to design, a first step would be to stop believing that the plasticity and progress of the what we do inherently produces good outcomes just because we designed them to be so. People fail, friends fail, and we misuse our opportunities to become exercises in futility. We may not necessarily agree that humans are doomed to be tempted, vulnerable, sinful, desperate, egotist, unfaithful and neutrally wired to seek short-term rewards, but how are we to think about the progress of design if we see people as inherently frail and confused, and some friends as possibly bad company?

At the centre of these speculations like these lies the question if designing for “empowerment” is simply not enough in order to promote self-control amongst our users. I may be empowered by a certain design, but still carry a surplus of powerlessness, with a lack of will, training and motivation to employ my powers. Not only do I lack self-control, but the friends I get in user-friendly designs may become a burden for me to do the right thing.

Unexamined “user-friendliness” may paradoxically be one of the most profound traps of akrasia in design, especially in its indirect form. User-friendliness modulates behaviour towards the most “friendly” route of action, but like with any friends, they may lead us into bad company, or social dynamic which undermine civic courage and virtuous action. Just like I may be confused and lazy, and not do the right thing, I may also know gossiping is no good, but designers offer me all kinds “friendly” ways to judge and speak ill of others. For example, on twitter, accumulative vice and sad affects seem to thrive better than good friends.

Does some user-friendly design make us more prone to bad company, or drawn into behaviours that turn us into bullies? It seems our participation in social media promotes some of those small ill-treatments between peers, those miniscule everyday instances of rejection, rudeness and emotional humiliation that corrode trust and community. Will the bad friends we are drawn to, through user-friendly design, in the end also disfigure and undermine the positive friendships? Is design simply becoming bad company?

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