Unintended Consequences

As designers, whether we are Product Managers, Product Designers, or in HR, there are consequences of what we do, and often we’re okay with that. Uber knew it would be taking away jobs from existing taxi drivers, travel search engines like Hipmunk and Kayak knew they were making travel agent less relevant, and Hotmail, Gmail, FedEx, and UPS knew they were making the postal service less necessary. Isn’t the point of incremental innovation and disrupting incumbents to provide a better product/service at the same or lower price?

But what about the unintended consequences? I wager that many of us do not spend the time deeply thinking of how our actions and products affect the world.

When Facebook started offering its employees $10,000 to move closer to work, I’m sure their goal wasn’t to gentrify the nearby neighborhoods as price out people already living there. But as the Guardian keeps on reporting (see here, here, and here) of the effects of the program, that’s exactly what’s happening. Families are being forced to live in RVs or their cars, and even school principals and teachers are forced to live with each other or commute from long distances in order to serve their current students. What happened to their American Dream?

Not as shameful but still harmful is how electronic manufacturers have trained us to covet the latest gadget, causing us to dump our still useful and working electronics. Hundreds of thousands of people feel like they need the latest iPhone, and Tesla keeps giving us more reasons to drop our gas-guzzling vehicles by continuing to make electric vehicles more efficient, sexy, and affordable. Such companies are making us prematurely leave our existing solutions, causing an increase in production/manufacturing which is what harms the environment.

So what can we do about it?

As consumers, we need to use what we have until we can’t! I’m still using my Samsung S4 which I purchased in Dec 2013, although the battery is now at a point that I need to replace it. My MacBook Pro, which was made in 2013, is still performing like the beast it was when it was born, and that includes the battery. Instead of buying a new car, I decided to buy a used 2009 Nissan Versa. I call her Samantha.

As designers, we have a more difficult task: we need to deeply think about consequences our products/programs/actions bring and take steps to help mitigate it. We also need to be evangelists and advocates for those who are not our users and the environment. Apple has its recycling program, but they should do the opposite of their current program by incentivizing those who have older iPhones to get more on their trade-ins compared to those who have newer iPhones. Apple can go a step further by ensuring that newer versions of iOS don’t cripple older generations. Companies like Apple and Samsung can even go one step further by reintroducing replaceable batteries into their devices.

Similarly, Tesla could educate potential customers that it’s not environmentally friendly to buy an environmentally friendly vehicle if you have an existing car in decent shape. Use it until you can’t use it any longer, than upgrade to that beautiful Tesla. Yes, I know this last example is a harder sell.

If our mission as designers is to make the world a better place, than we need to stand beside that mission even if it hurts our bottom line. We need to design the world we want to live in, both for us and for others


  1. Sounds great in dreams, but totally contradicts with capitalist economy which main goal is to make more and more profit.
    Of course companies could do some nicely looking small moves in this direction as a PR campaigns, but to make this practice real for everyone we need to change the system itself…

    1. Hi Oleg, you’re completely correct that it contradicts capitalism, but if we have these companies touting themselves to be mission-driven companies then I really think they need to do a better job to stand up to their missions. I believe you can make a profit and make the world a better place, but if you don’t aim for that “ideal”, then how will you reach it? And you reach it by committing to your principles/beliefs and going to extra mile to ensure everything you do as a company supports it.

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