What could possibly drive positive change in the tech industry? | by Anna Rátkai


1) Consumer demand

Chart: consumer demand

Companies need people (or other companies if it is a B2B) that buy or use their product, otherwise, they won’t be able to make money.

That is why market research is such a big part of product development. Companies want to align their offering to what consumers say they want. The other side of the coin is of course the actual sales (or usage) numbers that show what consumers are buying and using in reality. If they notice that a product doesn’t bring enough money, it is time to reconsider things.

Why do you think Apple is launching “carbon neutral” watches? Because they understand that environmental sustainability is becoming an important part of decision-making for their consumers. Simply put: they can reach a wider audience (sell more watches) if they claim their products to be a more sustainable version.

2) Competition

Chart: competition

If a business doesn’t pick up the signals on an unmet need, chances are soon there will be a new player on the market fulfilling that need.

Take Fairphone as an example. Bas van Abel realized the unmet need (ie: consumer demand) for ethical and reparable smartphones way before Apple did. He founded Fairphone which now has an influence on the industry. Fairphone’s presence and growth (76% more devices sold in 2020 than in 2019) show the increasing demand for sustainable electronics.

Which not even Apple can ignore any longer, hence the ‘carbon neutral’ products. And do you remember Apple’s efforts to make the iPhone 14 easy to repair? If there was no Fairphone pushing the boundaries on how easy it can be to repair your phone, creating new standards and consumer demand, arguably there would be no repairable iPhone either.

3) Employee demand

chart: employee demand

Companies need talented and dedicated designers like you to build great products. If no designer is willing to work on an ethically questionable or unsustainable product, the company won’t have a product to sell. (Or they ask the engineers to do the “design”…good luck selling that!)

There are two ways a company can notice signals from employees.

The first one is the lack of skilled and dedicated employees. For example when a company puts out a job ad and there is no decent designer who wants to take the job, or when valuable employees leave the company because of unethical or unsustainable practices. Not being able to attract and retain talent is a big 🚩 for the company that they should recognize as a signal for a necessary change.

The second one is when employees internally express their demands or disagreement with how thighs currently are.

Take Tristan Harris as an example. He worked at Google when he realized the harmful impact of Google’s attention engineering efforts (think constant email notifications on your phone to grab your attention and pull you into your Gmail account). One day in 2013 he sent out a 141 slide PowerPoint “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention”. It resonated with others at the company so no surprise it went viral.

The slides were often referred to by employees fighting internal battles over features designed to maximize user attention, former employees said.”

Google had no choice but to recognize the employees’ demand for more ethical tech. Years after Tristan’s slides, Google launched wellbeing.google where they encourage users to “Unplug more often” and “Minimize Distractions”. Would they have done this without Tristan’s slide deck and thousands of employees fighting the uphill battle for ethical tech? Doubtful.

4) Industry professionals demand

Chart: industry professional demand

As a designer working in the trenches of the tech industry, you have the opportunity to notice cracks before anyone else and voice your concerns to the whole industry.

Continuing with Tristan’s story, let’s see how he took tech ethics from Google to the whole industry. After he left Google, he (together with others) founded the Center For Humain Tech, which does amazing work around increasing awareness and education about tech ethics industry-wide. They even released an entertaining yet alarming documentary (The Social Dilemma) on Netflix that reached millions of people and educated them about the dangers of social media. Thanks to this, consumer demand for ethical tech is growing, which in turn gives space for companies that offer easy and comprehensive personal data protection solutions (like Aura). And of course legislation around personal data like GDPR. See…everything is connected (hence all the arrows in the chart).

Another example of the power of a designer in igniting positive change is Deceptive Patterns. Manipulating user behavior and decisions has never been ethical, but we didn’t pay much attention (or didn’t know how to handle it) before Harry Bignull published Dark Patterns (now Deceptive Patterns). He did a tremendous favor to the whole industry by naming and structuring these patterns. His work inspired others to care about and fight against Deceptive Patterns. As an industry (or design community) we now demand companies to not use Deceptive Patterns and call out the ones that do. And thanks to all this collective effort, the application of Deceptive Patterns is now prohibited by law in some countries.

This brings us to the next driver of change…

5 ) & 6) Citizen demand and regulations

Chart: citizen demand and laws and regulations

Companies must obey laws and regulations to legally sell their products.

I mentioned GDPR and Dark Pattern regulations already and here is another one: Apple now must sell their phones with USB-C charger instead of their proprietary “Lightning” cables thanks to an EU Law. This law of course aims to reduce e-waste.

$312 million (250 million euros). That’s how much money is wasted every year on unnecessary charger purchases in the EU, according to the European Council. There is also around 11,000 tonnes of waste produced every year from unused or thrown away chargers and cables.

In Western democracies, laws and regulations are developed (or influenced) by the officials we elect to represent us. So as citizens who want to see change, we can vote for officials whose agenda aligns with ours or we can voice our concerns in letters or emails directed to elected officials, in public forums, etc.

7) Investor demand

chart: investor demand

Companies need investor money to grow, innovate, experiment, and sometimes just to stay afloat.

For example, Fairphone was founded in 2014 but the first year they turned profit was 2020. During those early 6 years, they needed investor money to finance their operations. People and companies that believed in Fairphone’s mission of producing a sustainable smartphone, loaned their money to the company.

As the demand for sustainable and ethical products is growing, investors are more and more going to support companies that respond to these demands.

Investors want to invest in companies that have a future. So if a company does not have those bold [sustainabiliyt] commitments and show that they’re executing on them, then investors will take their money elsewhere.”

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