Bookmark: "On Weaponised Design"


This may well be the most comprehensive article I’ve read this year so far on the topic of the ethical responsibility of designers. Its author, Cabe, discusses “weaponised design”: “electronic systems whose designs either do not account for abusive application or whose user experiences directly empower attackers”.

The role of designers is put at the center of this argumentation, showcasing how not taking into account the consequences of design for everybody who may use it is, at its core, poor design. Through a range of prominent examples, the author describes a “user-hostile digital world” and calls for more depth, beyond common design practices that ignore the political dimension inherent to even such apparently apolitical disciplines as UX design:

Today, user experience design no longer requires a sociological or behavioural science background, but these origins linger. […] As platforms became more commodified – especially through mobile touch mediums – UX designers have progressively become more reliant on existing work, creating a feedback loop that promotes playfulness, obviousness and assumed trust at the expense of user safety.

Or, in more harsh words:

As design has become commodified and weaponised by both platform operators and attackers, the response from designers has largely been to arrange chairs on the Titanic.

And while I know enough critical designers who are working hard on doing more than redecorating a sinking ship: looking at the big picture, I too see the issue of continued oversimplification of “users” (a topic close to my heart for almost a decade now) and an unjustified trust that following “best practice” without reflection means to create good solutions in design practice at large.

This is why essays like this, and the continued work by many engaged design activists to preach ethical design, are so important:

practicing design that views users through a politically-naive lens leaves practitioners blind to the potential weaponisation of their design. User-storied design abstracts an individual user from a person of lived experience to a collection of designer-defined generalisations.

And towards the end, the text suggests a powerful multidisciplinarity which may have the potential to counter the inevitable shortcomings a community of practice like UX:

Beyond better design paradigms, designers must look beyond the field, toward practices that directly criticise or oppose their work. In particular, security research and user experience design have significant practice and goal overlap and this relationship is often antagonistic.

Overall: a long read (25-30 minutes), but definitely a text I would like to see read by designers at large. Design is always political, no matter the context, and hence so is UX design.

Copy of this article syndicated on Twitter (13 likes, 4 retweets)
Responding with a post on your own blog? Submit the URL as webmention (?)