Designing the Good Life: The Ethics of User Experience Design

of 141 /141 designing the good life the ethics of user experience design Sebastian Deterding (@dingstweets) UX London 2014, May 29, 2014 cb


“You cannot not communicate,” psychologist and philosopher Paul Watzlawick once famously said. Similarly, whatever we create as user experience designers influences others - even if we don’t intend it. And as software is eating the world, the domain of our responsibility is rapidly becoming all-encompassing. Layer by layer, question by question, this talk invites you to reflect on the moral dimensions of your work. Talk presented May 29 at UX London 2014.

Transcript of Designing the Good Life: The Ethics of User Experience Design

designingthe good lifethe ethics of user experience designSebastian Deterding (@dingstweets)UX London 2014, May 29, 2014


<1>the thieves

of timeSo I would like to begin by telling you a story.

A story taken from a favourite children’s book of mine, actually.

It takes place in a quiet little town, somewhere in Italy, some time in the 20th century.

One day, at an amphitheatre, the girl Momo appears, seemingly from nowhere, with no recollection of her past, dressed in an old long coat. The villagers soon discover that Momo has a special gift: Just by truly listening to people, she can help them get happy again, or resolve a conflict, or find a solution.

The peace of the village is disturbed when the Men In Grey appear. They introduce themselves to the villagers as representatives of Timesavings Bank, Inc.

To each villager, a man in grey calculates how many seconds they will still have in their live, and how many of those precious seconds they are currently wasting.

That extended chat with the newspaper man every morning? 3.285 million wasted seconds over the time of your life. That flower you bring to that woman who’s blind and cannot even see it? 15.126 million seconds.

Appalled, the people promise to immediately start saving time and deposit it with the Timesavings Bank.

But a curious think happens: The more time people save, the less time they seem to have. Instead, they become ever-more hectic, stressed, rushed, cold, anaemic – as if all life and colour had been sucked out of them.

In the conceit of the story, it turns out that the Men in Grey are not from a Timesavings Bank, but a supernatural race of parasites that feeds off of human time.

They store the time people save in a giant underground vault as frozen hour lilies – each petal the physical manifestation of a minute of life.

The Men in Grey then thaw the petals to roll them into cigars.

And by smoking them, they ingest human time. Without us saving our time for them, they would perish. I won’t spoil the ending of the story for you. But the phenomenon it picks up is real enough.

john maynard keynes

»Technological unemployment ... means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, ... to live wisely and agreeably and well.«

economic possibilities for our grandchildren (1930) in the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes projected that in our age, technical progress would have compounded to the point that we have solved the

problem of scarcity. Instead, we’d be faced with the quintessential human problem how to deal with free time and nothing to do.

And yet, to me, – and I would guess for most of you – my work day feels more like this. But why? Why, especially for us digital workers, although we are automating away more and more work and become wealthier and wealthier, why do we feel like we are more and more short on time, overwhelmed, overworked?

And this is not just a subjective impression. According to several studies, despite growing economic prosperity, life satisfaction has remained stagnant in industrial nations in the past decades. So why?

Remember when e-mail was fun?

Or, asked differently: Remember when e-mail was fun? I just flew in from a conference in Padua, overhearing a conversation of how one attendant said he couldn’t make it to the evening dinner because he still had to “grind through today’s e-mail”. Another responded that she dreaded opening her inbox after not having done so for three days during the event.

The media nowadays reports regularly about “digital stress”. This is just one recent cover example from the Italian L’Espresso.

There are multiple books talking about our “distraction addiction”.


And if you search the hashtags #ringxiety and #fomo (fear of missing out), you will find many confessions of soul mates speaking out about their digital stresses and compulsions.

Tomi ahonen

The average user checks his or her smartphone 150 times a waking day.

That’s every 6.5 minutes.

annual mobile industry numbers (2013)

According to the annual mobile industry numbers, the average smart phone users checks his or her device 150 times a day. A 2012 study from the Helsinki Institute of Information Technology recently published in Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing suggests that phenomena like these emerge because small variable rewards help form a “checking habit”.

For me, media theorist Ian Bogost has formulated the best term for our current malaise: We are hyper-employed: “committed to our usual jobs and many other jobs as well. After that daybreak email triage, so many other icons on your phone boast badges silently enumerating their demands. Facebook notifications. Twitter @-messages, direct messages. Tumblr followers, Instagram favorites, Vine comments. Elsewhere too: comments on your blog, on your YouTube channel. The Facebook page you manage for your neighborhood association or your animal rescue charity. New messages in the forums you frequent. Your Kickstarter campaign updates. Your Etsy shop. Your Ebay watch list. And then, of course, more email. Always more email.”

Wherever there is a trend, there is a backlash. I encountered the first weak signals of it in this blog post by web designer Jack Cheng, saying these days, he only reached clarity on an airplane because there the wifi was turned off. (Remember when planes didn’t have wifi?)

He continued to tell the story of screenwriter Robert Long and others, whose only chance to get writing done was to book themselves onto a freight ship line, the Hanjin Boston, that goes from Seattle to Shanghai in several weeks without connectivity and offers passenger cabins for people who need to get things done.

News media are littered with articles about how the tech elite is struggling with their technology addictions, and is trying to unplug in response. Complete with print-out guides how to unplug.

There are now campaigns like the No Internet Week.

Or the National Day of Unplugging.

Things like Hibernate, a collective 24 hour “email fasting” pledge.

Companies like Digital Detox sell “disconnect” retreats to recharge your human batteries away from technology.

Give usour time back!

Like the children in the novel Momo, we are banding together on the streets, demanding that the Men in Grey give us our time back.But the inconvenient truth is:

this is us

This is us. We – the web and software industry – are the Men in Grey, making everything evermore connected, fast, smooth, compelling, addicting even. The fundamental ethical contradiction at the heart of the digital industry is that the people who most suffer from and organise against digital acceleration are the very same people who further it.

The apps, the networks, the platforms are the parasitic master race we build. For what do they live off of? What is it they collect and process and monetize in their data centres, their underground vaults?

this is our work


People typically say it’s data, and that’s true to an extent.


Other say it’s user-generated content. True likewise.


Or if they are really honest, it is money (or eyeballs, or ad impressions). But ultimately, all of these are made of a much more precious, an irreplaceably precious good:


Our time. Without us investing the time to share and like and write and buy and watch and click, they would perish.

we are thethieves of time

And we, user experience designers, are the agents who feed our parasitic masters. We build these systems and make them compelling, captivating, addicting even. For since the mid-2000s,

our industry has been learning from Las Vegas, though not in terms of (information) architecture.

We have been learning how to produce what anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll has called “addiction by design”. At least the gambling industry has the decency to not publicly brag about it.

Not so us: Since the 2000s, “persuasive design” has been storming our conferences and book shelves.And not to point any fingers here: I have been guilty of this as well.

what people wish they had done

Bronnie Ware, a palliative nurse, interviewed her patients what the things were they most wished they had done in their life. these are their answers.And yet: What are the wishes, the needs, the behaviours we design for, we make more persuasive and addictive and habitual?

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.Bronnie Ware, Regrets of the Dying,

what people wish they had done

Submit hours

… and what we design for

I am speechless how un-ironic and un-self-aware this application literally states what the effin’ problem is, to then go on and declare that it wants us to do more of that.

On the other hand of the spectrum, we build to-do apps to make us ever-more productive, efficient, timesaving.

how might we design for this?

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

I wish that I had let myself be happier.

So is there an alternative? Is there a way in which we might design for these wishes and needs instead?

<2>technologies of well-behaving?

Now there are quite a number of applications out there today that try to do that kind of thing for us: behaviour change apps, gamified apps that help us improve.

FitnessThere are now thousands of health, fitness, and quantified self applications that help you improve your exercising, eating, sleeping, even sex.

FinanceThere are services to improve all aspects of your life, for instance to set yourself financial goals and budgets.

personal aspirationsAnd applications to help you realise whatever personal aspiration you might have. However, when I look at these “technologies of well-behaving”, as I like to call them, I notice often a fundamental discontent rising in me.



More productive

Not drinking too much

Regular exercise at the gym

Getting out more with your associate employees

Stay in the game. Move on.They want you to be fitter, happier – in order to be more productive. They want you to self-manage, self-control, self-optimise, self-motivate in order to fit even better into the Game of Life that was defined by others for you.

instrumentalising well-beingThey instrumentalise well-being and well-behaving for the sake of productivity, like Digital Detox corporate retreats for employee engagement. And even if these applications are not co-opted by some specific organisation (your company, health insurance, government), even if you use them “just for yourself”, there is this underlying instrumentalisation remaining.

The willing quantified slaveFor as Foucault noted, any such “technology of self” has a technology of domination as its flip side. Modern liberal market economies not only allow, but also demand that the individual continually self-monitors, self-regulates, self-optimises. This is how it squares innovation, progress, and creativity with its exploitation and social control. Through quantified self tools, we are rendering ourselves into governable numbers, driven by the false consciousness that we do so solely for our own sake.

What for?If we want to escape this ever-lurking instrumentalisation, we have to dare ask the big questions again. The very big questions: Why? What is all of this for? This – life? Society? World?

One way of doing so is to pick up the trail of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. In it, he asked a very similar question: What is the ultimate goal, in whose service we pursue everything else? The one thing that is not an instrumental means to an end, but the ultimate end?

»If, then, there is some end of the thing we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), … clearly this must be the good and the chief good.«

Aristotlenichomachean ethics (1.1094a)

»Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be.«

Aristotlenichomachean ethics (1097b)

Not seeking pleasure & avoiding painNow Aristotle was not a hedonist. He was quick to note that happiness does not mean seeking bodily pleasure and avoiding bodily pain – because these are fleeting and often beyond our control. As children, we begin by being pushed around like a pinball by pleasure and pain, and the majority of people, Aristotle thinks, remain so. But he is looking for a deeper, lasting happiness. He calls this lasting well-being eudaimonia.


Well-being, flourishing, the good life:»the exercise of the rational faculties of the soul in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several, the best and most final one.«

Aristotlenichomachean ethics (1098a)

Eudaimonia we today translate as flourishing, well-being, or the good life. Flourishing, Aristotle held, is exercising and perfecting the unique capacities we as human individuals possess – and doing so for its own sake, for the sake of the “proper pleasure” that doing so brings: think of the pleasure of designing Oliver Reichenstein spoke about yesterday. This idea is corroborated by contemporary positive psychology: Contentment, well-being, long-term life satisfaction arise from developing and exercising self-concordance: acting in concordance with one’s own values, needs, interests, goals, and capacities, and developing one’s capacities to do so.Notably, humans have the ability to perform reasoned, deliberate, self-determined action, to pursue and perfect the lasting well-being of realising self-concordance against their outer and inner tugs. This requires virtues: The developed skills, practices, habits to act deliberately, consciously, grounded in insight, for its own sake, and well.

If we see current technologies of well-behaving through this lens, other issues become apparent. First, if we design under the assumption that human beings are lazy creatures of habit and pinballs to their emotions and impulses, and therefore make everything easy, frictionless, habitual, emotion-appealing, we are nurturing that very animal part in us.

nurturing our animal part ...


evan selinger

»Instantaneous access coupled with lower prices and zero ‘shipping and handling’ costs turns ‘casual’ readers into ‘impulsive obsessives.’ The Kindle thus appears to be asking us to become the type of people who impulsively turn to it whenever we feel literary or documentation itches.«

impatience as digital virtue (2012)

Philosopher of technology Evan Selinger has called this “impatience as a digital virtue”. By making us used to everything working frictionless and being always available, the Kindle cultivates us into persons who expect that everything will always work immediately, and who mindlessly act out every impulse immediately.

we cultivatewhat we design for

In short, we cultivate the kind of human we design for. But we could use the very same principle for the opposite.

… or becoming more than thatWe could design under the assumption that the human being is capable of more, but requires training for that capacity to become reality – what Swiss philosopher Peter Bieri calls “the craft of freedom”.

»If we understand the ergon of a human being as self-concordance, then self-knowledge and the perfection of the analytic, navigational, and motivational competencies (to realize it) are the virtues.«

Hope Mayaristotle‘s ethics (2010: 148)

This is the fundamental assumption of virtue ethics, and again one paralleled in and borne out by contemporary psychology. Virtues, in this reading, are the competencies we need to life self-determinedly: “executive function”, mindfulness, self-knowledge, willpower.

An ever-increasing number of empirical studies suggest that mindfulness can be trained and has all kinds of positive effects, like reducing the grip of impulses. And similarly so for willpower: it can be trained, and if people make an effort to resist an impulse, this is often effective. Acting deliberately or not makes a difference, practically and ethically.

»You look especially lovely tonight.«

Lacking intention and insight


My favourite illustration for this is a recent self-experiment the journalist Matthew Shear did for the magazine Popular Science. He tried to “gamify” all parts of his existence for a week, including “becoming a better fiancé”, where he got points for washing dishes or taking the dog out. And on the evening of day 5, when the two went to bed, he said: “You look especially lovely tonight.”

»You look especially lovely tonight.«

Lacking intention and insight

»Now I feel like you’re just doing it for the points.«

To which she replied: “Now I feel like you’re only doing it for the points.” It makes a difference whether we do something because of a rule or incentive, or because we mean it.

“just like cattle”If we act mindlessly, without intention, just prodded by incentives or punishments, pleasure and pain, we are, in Aristotle’s words, “just like cattle.” We let ourselves be limited and controlled by what we, as humans, can also transcend.

endorsement from insightMore importantly, reflexive endorsement is how we escape instrumentalisation. Aristotetle recognised that the educator has to train the pupil to look beyond bodily happiness and to acquire self-control, but because the ultimate goal is to enable the individual to live self-determinedly in accordance with its own understanding of the good life, it also aims to enable the individual to deliberate whether said education served this purpose, and then either embrace or change it.

Implicit theory of social changeresponsibilisation of self


Another issue: Many technologies of well-behaving help reproduce the social systems and narratives that give rise to the very issues they try to solve: sedentary living, obesity, global warming. Their overarching narrative: It’s the individual’s fault. If only we all ate a bit better, drove a bit more fuel efficiently, all would be well.

“when discipline is reinforced, revolution cannot fail!”This is not a new narrative. You can already find it on Maoist propaganda posters. The plan is faultless, the system is faultless. If the “Great Leap Forward” fails and kills millions in the process, it is not because the plan was faulty, but because individuals did not put in enough effort. The problem is that whenever we highlight something, we background something else – when we put the blame on the individual (by building well-behaving apps), we divert attention and energy away from systemic issues.

backgrounding systemic root causesJohn Thogersen, a doyen of environmental psychology, recently bashed his own discipline for this: Motivating small green actions is a feel-good lullaby that distracts us from the hard truth that collective political action is necessary to answer global warming. Take waste as one example: Municipal waste production (which includes everything you as an individual throw away) is a mere 3% of the total US waste production.


tell convenient lies &alleviate symptoms

instead of

facing reality &striking at the roots

<3>technologies of

well-beingSo is there an alternative? I think there is, and I think it again takes us back in time, towards what I would call “technologies of well-being.”

One of the oldest of these is fasting, be it in Hinduism, Islam, or elsewhere: Clearing your head, training your ability to be more independent of immediate bodily urges, learning to appreciate food and drink all the more.

It is cloisters and retreats, spaces and times that shield us from the bombardment of everyday demands and impulses.

It is spiritual teaching, dialogue, and meditation, where we are invited to ponder our role in existence, and to face ourselves and reality unshrouded.


It is hour books, daily meditations and prayers that give a reflective counterpart to what we are doing.

It is memento mori’s like Philippe de Champaigne's Vanitas (1671), death masks, gargoyles: Images in public space that remind us of our own mortality and put our daily toils in perspective.

It is traditions like the Shabbat, a day of rest, community, remembrance, and spiritual reflection, “a palace in time” whose purpose is not to restore your productivity for work, but put work and productivity themselves into perspective. Now I am not suggesting in any way that you should become religious. I am only saying that religion has been, in our cultures, the place where technologies of well-being have been developed and refined over millennia.

re-mindersAll of them are fundamentally re-minders, technologies for reinstating and cultivating mindfulness.

speed up slow downreduce seams interruptabundance constraintbehaviours Intentionshabits mindfulness improve “how” ask “what for”

Instead of speeding us up, they slow us down. Instead of reducing seams, they interrupt and create friction. They offer constraints not abundance. They care about intention as much as about rote behaviour, and mindfulness as much as habit. Instead of improving our means of execution, they create a space where we can ask why we are doing what we’re doing to begin with. Can we translate that into design? Some people have tried it, calling their work “positive design.”

Marc Hassenzahl

»With an aesthetic of convenience, you will never instil change. What you need, rather, is an aesthetic of friction.«

towards an aesthetic of friction (2011)

One of them is Marc Hassenzahl, whose work around an “aesthetics of friction” I really enjoy.

Take his “Chocolate Machine” – like many of Marc’s works a somewhat whimsical experiment. Every hour or so, this little device releases a chocolate ball onto your work desk, and you have the choice: Indulge, or resist, put the ball back again into the machine, pressing a lever with a connected counter showing you how often you resisted. Instead of coercing or rewarding or pushing you in any way, the Chocolate Machine engages you in a dialogue with yourself what you consider “the good life” at each point, and helps you to develop your willpower.

Play video

Another example is “See your folks”: You enter your parents’ home country, their age, and how often on average you see them ...

and out comes how often you will see them before you die. Admittedly this memento mori is more of a one-time intervention. But again: It uses data not to behave well according to some foregone conclusion, but to re-mind you of what you might care about, and easily overlook in the course of your hectic life.

For a more permanent version, take Hans Ruitenberg’s “Tiny Tasks”: A set of disks, where you pick one you like and put it on your keychain, until you did that thing you want to do, and then pick another. No scolding, coercing, forcing – just a gentle reminder every time you pick out your keys that you planned to walk barefoot and haven’t done so yet. Doing such things you want is just as important as the space of reflection it opens, when you realise you have wanted to but forgot to simply savour lunch for two weeks now, and what that says to you about how you live and whether you like that.

Fred Stutzman’s little application “Freedom” gives you a digital cloister by blocking your network connection for a pre-set amount of time.

But I like this version by the NYC based design studio “The Way We See The World” even better: Blokket, a sack made of a smart fabric of Nylon and silver that blocks the connectivity of your smartphone.

I like it because, as the group describes the concept in its own words: “The manual act of wrapping your phone up creates a new ritual; embedding the awareness of a newly formed ‘digital etiquette’ within its use.” It is not just a digital cloister: It is a wilful, contemplative, ritual act.


Fine and good, you say, but how do I bring this to my everyday practice? We cannot all only spend time designing devices that disconnect, right? So how might we integrate ethics – a concern for the good life, the big why, into user experience design?

The truth is: Like Momo, I cannot give you any answers. Because we life in a pluralist society: my values are not necessarily yours. But like Momo – or Socrates –, there is one thing I can do, and that is asking questions, and therein, step by step, help you clarify what the ethics of user experience design are to you.



So here’s the interface that greeted me at Padua airport on my iPhone when I tried to log into the 45 minutes of free wifi. Apparently, it’s not so free – it requires signing up up for this online Poker service as well. But then you squint and see that tiny grey link underneath, “No thanks just take me online.” Now you may say: No harm done, a smart user will figure this out and get free wifi. But I guarantee if I were to interview the designer who made this and ask: “Did you intend to fleece not so smart users into signing up although they didn’t have to?”, the designer would sheepishly admit to that.

What are the

intentionsof your design?

Which brings me to my first, a very simple question: What are your intentions when you design something? Are they intentions you can ethically stand behind?



For my next question, I’d like to turn to a news story that has made the rounds partially thanks to Mike Monteiro’s wonderful talk “Designers are destroying the world” (search and watch it if you haven’t yet): the 22 year old Bobbi Duncan, who didn’t want her parents to know that she was lesbian – but through changing the settings of what was automatically shared with whom in one’s social graph, facebook told them anyway, and her parents threw her out: because she was a member (real and facebook) of a queer choir, and the updates of that choir, after the change, popped up on her parents’ stream.

adam greenfield

»The Achilles’ Heel of the Internet Era is the needless churn in components our daily information-handling routines are built on. Constantly new versions, new UIs, new ‘features,’ all driven more by business model than any identifiable user need.«

twitter status (2013) where we are not directly hurting people through thoughtlessness, often, we are wasting their time with the constant churn of software updates that serve nothing

but the planned obsolescence of device manufacturers and software design trend. We make it flat and now you have to relearn everything.

And we are wasting other resources as well. By one estimate, when Apple switched from their 30 plug adapter to the new Lightening adapter, 45 mio. docking stations were obsoleted, together with cable equipment. As the informatics professor Bill Tomlinson argued in a recent First Monday article, the same holds for web activity: The “cognitive surplus” (Clay Shirky) – people’s free time utilisable online – also uses energy. A lot of energy. The global server park by one estimate absorbs 1.5% of all electricity in the world, despite or because of recent massive efficiency gains.

livingprinciples.orgIf you are interested in this kind of underbelly of your work, the Designer’s Accord and other organisations have developed the living principles, a framework of the role of the designer in creating a sustainable society, with a set of questions to work through.

Or take the case of Ultrinsic, which uses monetary incentives - bets - to motivate students to learn. On the outset, it seems like an innocuous tool. Many platforms today similarly use incentives and rewards. Research suggests that rewards crowd out rather than add to intrinsic motivation, the actual caring for learning, the enjoyment of autonomous learning. Growing up in an environment that only operates through punishments and rewards detrains our abilities to act autonomously, self-determinedly, and trains us to care about incentives and outcomes. And doing so, research indicates, ultimately lowers our psychosocial well-being. And yet, every time we user incentives, we cultivate and nurture just these tendencies, we signal they are normal and good. We can generalise that point:

Richard Buchanan

»Products ... are vivid arguments about how we should lead our lives.«

design and the new rhetoric (2001)

Every designed thing, by virtue of being in the world, signals, communicates that it is good and normal and proper that such a thing exists, in the way it exists, and in the way it is made.

In the Good Life … one person teaches, the others listen. you learn while sitting. you learn by taking notes. you learn for yourself. these things are not to be changed.

Even something as simple as the chairs you sit on right now says something about what kind of vision of a normal, good life the designers had in mind.

In the Good Life … people compete. it is important to be judgmental. it is important to be liked. there can only be one winner. things like these are worth a designer’s time.

A little playful application like CubeDuel, that allows you to (anonymously) compare and vote for who of your LinkedIn contacts you’r rather work with, communicates certain things as good and normal.

What are the

effects*of your design?

* also unintended, long-term, rhetoricalSo here’s my second question to you: What are the effects of your design – the immediate ones, as in the case of Bobbi Duncan, but also the unintended, long-term, rhetorical effects.



Returning to my example at the beginning, often when we are talking about the ethics of design, we are asking: “Is something like this still ethical? Is it still permissible? Or have I crossed the threshold into unethical territory?” We consider ethics as avoiding a small domain of negatively affecting others “too much”. But from a virtue ethical viewpoint, that is a very narrow conception indeed.

From a virtue ethical view, everything is ethical, because everything realises, approaches (or falls short of) living life well. Ethics is a question of aspiring and moving towards the best we can be, not drawing a fence around a small low end we have to repent for.

What vision of

The Good Life does your design aspire to?

So this is my third question to you: What vision of the good life does your design aspire to?



Now if there is one industry that is not in want of aspiration, it is the tech industry. To me, this image of a letter an Apple employee found at his first day at work exemplifies this pervasive rhetoric in the digital industries: This is a place where you can, in Steve Job’s words, “make a dent in the universe.” But are we really? Are we living up to this – beautiful – ambition? What dent are we making?

»your life’s work«What is the “life’s work” you get to do? An annual incremental innovation to keep the cycle of planned obsolescence going?

»something big«A company with the highest market cap and biggest cash coffers ...

»something that couldn’t happen anywhere else«… thanks to clever ways of evading taxes? Now you may say: Well, big companies are big companies, with many employees pursuing many agendas, so naturally, you will see incongruous behaviour. But the small teams of startups are different!

ben horowitz

»Technology means ‘a better way of doing things.’ Making a better way of storing information, a better currency, or a better way of making friends means improving on thousands of years of human experience and is therefore extraordinarily difficult. ... The technology startup world is where brilliant people come to imagine the impossible.«

can-do vs. can’t-do culture (2014) Ben Horowitz argued in a recent reply to the rising criticism sported against Silicon Valley and startups: “The technology startup world is where brilliant people come

to imagine the impossible.”

»imagine the impossible«

So what is the impossible that our startup world is inventing right now? The extraordinarily difficult improvement upon thousands of years of human experience? Well, we’re in London, so let’s have a look at London’s hottest startups, according to the relevant press. What is it that they do?

»imagine the impossible«


Apparel data warehouse Social shopping Money transfer

Curated night’s events

Onlinebetting Taxi app CAPTCHA ad games

Art personality quiz Debit payments Band tracker Social recruitment

Online luxury food Movement tracker Online dating Personal fashion recommender

Or as Jeff Hammerbacher put it:

Jeff Hammerbacher

»The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.«

founder & chief scientist, cloudera (2011) am not saying startup members are bad people. I am not saying they are not often doing solid and hard and valuable work. As a professor, I cherish the accomplishment

of my students who go out and create their own business and build their own thing. I am just asking you, in the audience: Is that all you want to do? Is “reinventing online dating” the limit of your aspiration? Is that what you’d love to put on your tombstone?

victor papanek

»For design is the most powerful tool yet given man with which to shape his products, his environments, and, by extension, himself.«

design for the real world (1971: 86)

As Aza Raskin was already saying yesterday in reference to Victor Papanek, as designers, we are increasingly powerful. For think about it:

everything is becoming a networked interfaceThe Internet has linked all information processing to digital networked technology. Ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things is doing the same to our physical world. And so, as designers of this technology and their interfaces, the remit of our influence becomes ubiquitous as well.

The designer’s share

The world

Yet, as Papanek put it in this little diagram, much too often, as designers, we only focus on the tip of the iceberg.

Your client

Your users

We focus on the requirements of our clients more than our users.

Your user’s demands

Their actual needs

We focus more on their demands and wants and impulses than their actual, lasting human needs.

Your user base

Your country’spopulation

We focus on a small, white, educated, affluent etc. user base, rather than the total, underserved population of our country.

Your 1st world problems

Our global crises

We focus on the problems and needs of our first world, rather than the global crises we face as humankind.

Your solution

The root cause

And often, we alleviate symptoms instead of addressing the root cause. So here’s my next question:

what do you wantto use your time for?

Peter-Paul Verbeek

»Things carry morality because they shape the way in which people experience their world and organize their existence, regardless of whether this is done consciously and intentionally or not. Designers ... materialize morality.«

what things do (2005)



And speaking of aspirations of the good life, we should not forget that design not only trains or pushes us towards behaviour that is conducive to living well. Every moment we spend with a device, every second we engage with a designed object is a moment of life, lived well or not. And if you walk around with that realisation through the world we build for ourselves, ...

The Good Life?you often get the shivers – because of how little we apparently expect of our lives.

The Good Life?Every piece of design, every time we interact with it, also materialises and shapes a stretch of time lived well or poorly, realising a good life or not.

Michel Foucault

»Why should the lamp or the house be an art object but not our life?«

ethics: subjectivity and truth (1997)

And so every moment of time we spend researching or building these systems, every minute we spend with our colleagues and communities.

This photo shows a colleague of mine, Buster Benson, setting up his (now-folded) startup HabitLabs to create technologies of well-being.

When they created Habit Labs, they also created these axioms for how they wanted to live and work together as a team. The life they wanted to support for their users was a natural outgrowth of how they wanted to live themselves in their daily work.

I started with a story, and I want to end with one. Game designer Chris Crawford owns 29,216 glass beads, in eight colours, with 3652 beads in each colour. Each colour represents a decade, each bead a day. And every morning he comes into his office, he takes one bead out of the smaller glass (the days he hopes he still has) and puts it into the larger glass – the days he has lived. Not to safe time. Not to live more efficiently. But to live each day consciously and wisely and well, and ask himself, every day:


What vision of

The Good Life do you want to live?