When was the last time you fought for a good user experience against shortsighted business goals? How about delaying a development schedule to get a feature right? Or redesigned a major section of your site to make tomorrow's Internet a better place? I bet you were with me until the last question.
The Internet has no absolute authority on right or wrong. No Pope, Czar, or Commander in Chief. Yet, like the flutter of a butterfly's wing that creates a hurricane halfway around the world, the small design decisions we make today shape tomorrow's Internet. Our decisions can welcome a new digital utopia or reinforce an Internet that teaches its citizens to be jaded, narcissistic, and paranoid. The choice is ours.
For a long time, the ever-expanding Amazon.com top-tab navigation was the Internet's most successful design meme. Although Amazon.com abandoned it, many sites still employ top-tab navigation doppelgangers. This was a fairly harmless design meme in the scheme of things. I was never a huge fan but, besides offending my sense of good design, it probably didn't do much to damage the overall Internet. Until the advent of social applications, most design memes fell into this category: at worst, they were a drag. Now we're facing a different worst-case scenario. Users are storing their most intimate data in the cloud, social media is incestuously interconnected, and application creators (like yourselves) are eager to reuse design elements across the Internet. We're creating hyper-replicating design memes with the potential to do real harm. Replace "design meme" with "evil alien virus," and you've got yourself a pitch for an action-packed Hollywood blockbuster.
The first design meme I encountered with true deleterious power was the opt-out check-box for marketing emails on sign-up forms. Our argument for it to be opt-in instead was user-experience focused with a nod to the business folks. Undesired emails would hurt the brand, annoy the user, and not necessarily generate qualified leads. What we didn't consider back then was how that small decision would help create today's Internet. These undesired marketing emails along with the invention of V1@gra contributed to the cacophony of commercial noise that now pollutes the Internet. As far as I know, this noise hasn't killed anyone. Yet most of us would prefer the Internet to feel a little more like relaxing on a secluded beach with a good book and less like Times Square on a muggy Saturday night.
Imagine for a moment what today's design decisions will do to mold the Internet's future. What if every product decision you made last week became a successful design meme? Would that create an Internet where you'd want your kids to play?
Sometimes we get lucky and it's not difficult to discern the difference between right and wrong. Don't sell user data because you're short on beer money. Don't keep emailing users after they unsubscribe. Don't read user emails to find the next great stock pick. These are certainly over-simplified dilemmas, and sadly, most ethical dilemmas aren't as clear-cut.
One of the great advances in the Internet was integrating disparate systems to produce new products. The early Google Maps mashups opened the door for complex social applications that found new uses for personal information stored in the cloud. Gathering this personal social data is not as simple as displaying Craigslist apartment rentals on a Google Map. Social sites secure user data using credentials, such as a unique ID and password, a design pattern introduced in the earliest computer systems. Some products allow third parties to securely access user data, although the experience is often frustrating. Many don't even bother to make such allowances. When it's a choice between no access and a poor user experience, it may seem reasonable to request a user's credentials from another site. After all, can't you create a better user experience if you can control the experience? Sadly, this design meme is training users to feel comfortable giving out their passwords to anyone who asks nicely. Identity theft is already a major problem, and training users to be sheep certainly won't help.
The ethical solution for accepting other sites' credentials is easy. All products should be built on open standards with a complete set of secure APIs using common design interfaces. Let's universally employ an un hackable icon to denote that entering your credentials is 100% guaranteed secure. Any site that refuses to participate will be shut down instantly. Then we can all hold hands on a picturesque hillside and sing "I'd like to buy the world a Coke."
Unfortunately, what is truly best for the Internet's future may not always be realistic. The challenge in this case is to develop standard interfaces to allow third-party access while teaching users responsible identity protection. The solutions become even more onerous when we consider that not every site will adopt the ethical standard. Tomorrow's Internet relies on sharing data across products. However, we don't want to achieve this at the expense of our user's security. A sense of security breeds trust, and trust breeds openness and understanding all valuable attributes for tomorrow's Internet.
To complicate matters, sometimes it's a decision between two undesirable outcomes. A user's freedom of speech is wonderful until it's focused on making another user miserable. I tend to lean anti-censorship, but am I willing to design the systems to ensure my site doesn't make cyber-bullying worse? Will I take the time to consider nascent destructive trends and go out of my way to build systems to prevent them from maturing? Is this even a good use of my time, considering I may mistakenly choose to address an ultimately innocuous trend?
Even when the perfect solutions don't exist, we need to add the ethical questions to our product conversations. Will this decision do anything to make the Internet worse? Better? If everyone else did the same thing, would I ever log on? These conversations should certainly occur in the greater industry (and in fine books like this one). More importantly, we need to include the ethics discussion in our everyday product design meetings.
There's a lot of guesswork involved. We need to put on our futurists hats and look into our crystal balls to see what we're creating. Our predictions may fall flat. We may not always comprehend the full extent of our decisions. But to ignore ethics in our product discussions is the equivalent of accepting that we have no power or influence over the future. I, for one, am in this industry to create products that help people fulfill their personal potential and ultimately make the world a better place. It's a lot of gravitas for seemingly insignificant product decisions, but I believe in the power of the Internet, and I want to be on the right side of history.
Today's Internet has revolutionized the way the world communicates. We are living in a time of unprecedented access to information, and so many barriers of the past are receding. Conversely, today's Internet not only replicates atrocities from the offline world, but it makes them easier to commit. Child abuse, sexual predators, bullying, and identity theft come quickly to mind.
Skynet may be waiting around the corner to render all our efforts moot, but until that day we need to accept the responsibility to build an Internet that can make us all proud. Critically examining our decisions on ethical grounds alone won't solve all the problems of tomorrow's Internet. But acknowledging that seemingly small design decisions are the foundation of tomorrow's Internet is a valuable first step in accepting ownership of the future.