Daniel McKenzie

digital product design


As the US teeters on the brink of a financial meltdown, I can’t help but to think how often man gets himself in trouble by designing something that doesn’t serve his own interests. Examples of man in conflict with his technological prowess include the creation of nuclear warheads, fossil fuel-run machines, fishing nets that “sweep” the ocean’s floors and less world-threatening inventions such as chemically altering drugs, credit cards, processed food, and television (to name just a few). All of these were invented by us but in the long run, don’t serve us well.

Our own financial system in the United States seems to be driven by not only extreme neurotic mood swings that any psychiatrist would deem psychotic, but also in part by newly created complex attributes such as derivatives—highly complex computer-generated financial instruments—which Warren Buffet refers to as “weapons of financial destruction.”

Richard Dooling wrote in a recent article for the New York Times:

“Somehow the genius quants—the best and brightest geeks Wall Street firms could buy—fed $1 trillion in subprime mortgage debt into their supercomputers, added some derivatives, massaged the arrangements with computer algorithms and—poof!—created $62 trillion in imaginary wealth. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that all of that imaginary wealth is locked up somewhere inside the computers, and that we humans, led by the silverback males of the financial world, Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson, are frantically beseeching the monolith for answers. Or maybe we are lost in space, with Dave the astronaut pleading, ‘Open the bank vault doors, Hal.’”

Has the system taken over? Our politicians up to now seem to have had a lot of faith in the Market— as in “The Market will correct itself.” What the Market has proven is that, like some other man-made inventions, it’s not necessarily working to our benefit. We have put too much confidence in numbers and computations and somewhere along the road forgot to apply the algorithm for human-ness—as in humans are prone to make errors and are often driven by greed or fear.

From a designer’s point of view, the technologist’s took over and decided to build a bunch of functionality that while very fun to tinker with, doesn’t serve the general good. As Thomas Friedman says “They were engineering money from money.”

Policy makers could learn a few things from the design community when it comes to creating sound policy and regulations. In recent years, design attitudes have changed putting more attention on customer (human) behavior rather than purely, business goals. Companies are slowly realizing that customers can’t be measured by demographics and spreadsheets alone. The attitude is that good design must serve—when was the last time you felt you had been served?

As a country and global community, we need to start a new paradigm that stems from human-centered design and apply it to everything we do. The environmental movement, still in its infancy, has known this for years.

What’s the point if we’re not designing to better our lives and create a more habitable world? Shouldn’t it be obvious that all design stem from a focus on the well-being of human beings?

Cooper, an interaction design agency, describes the following principles in their book “About Face”:

“[Design principles] encourage the design of product behaviors that support the needs and goals of users, and create positive experiences with the products we design”…”At the core of these values is the notion that technology should serve human intelligence and imagination (rather than the opposite), and that people’s experiences with technology should be structured in accordance with their abilities of perception, cognition and movement.”

Now, imagine that applied to our financial systems? Revolutionary!

We know that there is something fundamentally wrong with any design when it promotes the attributes of fear and greed. We also know something is very wrong when the action made by a few negatively affects the many.

According to Cooper, design solutions that aim to serve the needs of humans are:

Ethical (considerate, helpful)
• Do no harm
• Improve human situations

Purposeful (useful, usable)
• Help users (humans) achieve their goals and aspirations
• Accommodate user contexts and capacities

Pragmatic (viable, feasible)
• Help commissioning organizations achieve their goals
• Accommodate business and technical requirements

Elegant (efficient, artful, affective)
• Represent the simplest complete solution
• Appropriately accommodate and stimulate cognition and emotion

Hopefully, the US and the world will learn something from this financial catastrophe that we’re all so intertwined in. There’s a great sense in the US that we need change at many levels—health care, energy, education and now more than ever, our financial systems. What we need most is to get back to ideas that serve humans and our most noble of characteristics.


1 Comment

  1. 1 Saulo Dourado

    Great article, I think you’ll also like the book “Black Swan” ;)

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