Improving Human Existence — And Our Ethical Obligations As Product Developers

By SGW Team

In 2019, we saw a lot happen from a product standpoint, from groundbreaking developments to unfortunate and sometimes tragic mishaps — everything from the launch of Tesla’s new Cybertruck and its broken glass snafu to the two deadly Boeing 737 MAX passenger airline crashes. 

Whether developers are working on a large or small scale, one thing is certain: a product can change the world — for better or worse. In particular, product failures are reminders for us as engineers, designers, and developers to take seriously our commitment to improve human existence. 

In fact, at SGW, we believe this to be our very purpose. Improving human existence is our core focus — the “why” in why we do what we do.

Improving Human Existence: What Exactly Does That Entail?

To achieve our purpose to improve human existence, we realize this focus must impact every aspect of our work as product developers — how readily we adopt new technologies, our processes, our culture, in our interactions with people outside of our organization, and in how we think about a product’s afterlife and its impact upon the planet.

For instance, one way we’re able to improve human existence is by remaining up-to-date regarding new tools and advancements in our field, then implementing these mindfully so we can avoid costly and dangerous errors. However, this can be a challenge, because technological changes in the world of product development are happening at a rapid pace. However, this is just one of many difficulties we face related to the ethics of product design.

The Ethics of Product Design and Development: Why Such a Predicament?

By the time a product reaches its end-user, it should be sound. However, if there are serious problems with the product by this point — maybe it is nonfunctioning, has injured someone, or has to be recalled — these issues could have been prevented or at least addressed during the design process.

What makes these situations so complicated is that engineers are often placed under immense pressure in order to meet a strict deadline or get a product to market. “The desire to speed up a launch and rely on software updates that you can apply later might make you overlook an actual hardware problem that is catastrophic,” says Ryan Gray, SGW Designworks Co-Founder and CEO, during a discussion about Boeing’s 2019 crashes. “In hindsight, it’s easy to see how a company ends up in that spot. It’s cringeworthy, but if you look at the cascading series of events, you can see how that happens.”

engineer feedback SGW Designworks

A developer or engineer may even be asked to overlook certain standards or regulations or could be tempted to use inferior materials to keep a project within budget. Even if there is no unethical behavior involved, it’s also crucial that engineers and designers speak up about an issue or an uncertainty before signing off on a product design.

“Communication, risk, listening to team members, and the way you collaborate all come into play,” Gray explains. “[Boeing] largely had problems that people on teams identified a long time ago. But for whatever reason, either they didn’t speak up or they weren’t heard, or both. But if the right person had gotten the right information and understood the level of urgency about it, this all could have been avoided.”

Avoiding Unnecessary Risks

While not all product-fails result in life or death situations, it’s still wise for engineers and product developers to ensure accountability and have discussions at every stage of a project. Some large product development firms even have ethics hotlines for employees to leave anonymous messages about problems. 

At SGW Designworks, however, our size means are well-connected enough within our team that we are able to address potential issues head-on, and when they first arise. “Even in an organization this small,” says Gray, “we have to be really intentional about how we listen to each other and how we internalize and prioritize concerns that the team brings up.”

“It’s not uncommon that we’ll be in a room and someone on the team will say, ‘I’m not sure this product functions the way it should.’ Another person will say, ‘Well, let’s explore that a bit. What does it need to do? How do we know that? What is it doing now and how do we reconcile those three things to get the product where it needs to be?’ But these are very human, soft interactions and processes. So it’s not hard to see, since it is so human-centric, if you’re not super thorough, these problems can come up.”

So what are a few ways this idea of “improving human existence” impacts our work and processes here at SGW?

Improving Human Existence: In our Processes

For starters, while we believe in the Lean Startup methodology, we also realize there are risks associated with it — and we do what we can to mitigate these. We understand the importance of not taking shortcuts or speeding up timelines if these measures will result in a compromised product. 

“The product development process can be looked at similar to the scientific method,” says Chad Barnes, Director of Business Development at SGW Designworks. “When we’re developing things, we don’t know all the answers yet. So there are going to be lots of experiments and failures — which are important to the product development process so we can learn from them. But those need to be early; failures shouldn’t be happening after a product release, especially if someone’s life is on the line. It’s important to have all those learning cycles done to validate the product before it leaves. The things that happen in the news are good reminders to us to make sure we are validating everything and checking all those possibilities before releasing a product.”

Improving Human Existence: In our Relationships with People

We understand how our core focus of “improving human existence” also relates to our interactions with clients, our internal teams, and within the community. 

As Barnes explains, we’re always asking ourselves questions like, “Is my behavior and is my communication something that uplifts and makes others’ lives better? Or, am I grumpy and negative, and did I just cause a bad day for somebody?”

Improving Human Existence: For the Planet’s Sake

On a global scale, people are beginning to think more about electronic waste, their use of plastic, and climate change.

green grass blue sky planet earth

These are challenges facing humanity as a whole, but also becoming more important to us as product designers. Historically, engineers as a group haven’t given too much consideration to the afterlife of a product, but that is changing. 

Barnes believes millennials are at the forefront of this shift in thinking. “The millennial generation is rising into more influential spots within organizations; they’re taking on leadership positions and influencing organizations,” he says. “And they’re very much into work that has a higher purpose — a mindset of doing something that impacts society in a meaningful way. So I think that generation is going to have an influence in pushing us to do better for the environment and having products that mean something, that make an improvement in our lives or our human experience better.”

Whatever the driver, accountability amongst product designers and developers across industries is increasing. In fact, Randy Hunt, Head of Design for Grab and author of Product Design for the Web, predicts that 2020 will be “the tipping point” in terms of “designers taking responsibility for the consequences of their design choices on the world at large.”

In Conclusion 

As society as a whole starts to think more seriously about the impacts products have on our daily lives and the planet, changes to our industry will likely become necessary.

As always, we at SGW are keeping a close eye on opportunities for improving human existence, both in our internal processes and how we engage with our clients, communities, and teams.

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