Ethics of The Wow Factor in Design

There’s another side of the matter, and that side only comes to trouble us when we ask the fundamental questions.

Good Design Is Like Good Sex, Wow Is Like Porn

Good design is like good sex. A lot more things than physicality or emotion contribute to a pleasurable or rewarding experience. The wants, needs, as well as responsibilities of people, are all matters of concern.

The wow factor is like porn. It can be effective and even efficient at times, but it wears out quicker. Perhaps worse, it often misleads us to a flawed or even wrong attitude towards what we value most, in design or sex.

The wow can be many things in design: appealing user interface (UI) mockups, compelling presentations, or risk-free medleys of buzzwords and promises.

While the bitter truth is that viscerally appealing interfaces don’t guarantee decent usability and long-term experience. Comfortable and compelling stories don’t automatically attack the root problems. Neither do avoiding risks bode well for the long-term health of the stakeholders.

I’ve seen people and companies take that notion of wowing too literally, inattentive to the moral responsibility implied by the superficial side of things.

We often keep words like “users”, “customers”, or “people” at our lips’ discretion, and rightfully so. While there’s another side of the matter, and that side only comes to trouble us when we ask fundamental questions.


There’s always a bottom line, also a philosophically fine line, right there between to be and not to be. We have a social and moral responsibility to drag or nudge that line towards what we believe to be socially and morally more responsible.

An Unfortunate Habit

The focus on people is not only about satisfying them. It’s also about influencing or nudging them.

I’ve heard many justifications for the wow-first approach and most of them are understandable, such as:

  • It helps the clients to get a feel of it
  • It facilitates a good first impression
  • People like good stories
  • People like to see it
  • It appeals to them
  • The stakeholders don’t have time
  • Wow them or there will not even be a chance to talk about business/funding

We want to wow and we need to wow for many more practical reasons. While we need to be aware of the inherent risk.

Any design must satisfy the many needs of everyone involved in its making and use. These needs are often contradictory, so any design project involves weighing the importance of many requirements. We aim for a design that brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. This often leads to making deals and compromises. Nothing wrong with that, unless it becomes an unfortunate habit.

– Kees Dorst, Understanding Design

Nothing wrong with wowing, unless it becomes an unfortunate habit, by which the customers won’t think beyond the superficial, the clients won’t reflect and self-criticize, and the stakeholders won’t listen to different or difficult voices, with many from all parties having an illusion that the proposal or solution is good to go. That’s often where things start to go astray or, worse, decay (even when it’s not obvious at first and for a long time).

If gamers will not play our video game unless there’s violence, nudity, coarse language, and mature subject matter, then how far should we go to fulfill their desires?

If customers insist on wasting more unless we fabricate ideological stories to convince them on going greener and more sustainable, then how far should we go to push for that change?

If clients or stakeholders can not or will not think strategically, deeply, or even properly without looking at a stimulating mockup or salivating numbers, then how far should we go to normalize or promote their way of thinking/doing?

There’s always a bottom line, also a philosophically fine line, right there between to be and not to be. We have a social and moral responsibility to drag or nudge that line towards what we believe to be socially and morally more responsible.

Sure, let’s keep wowing, with engaging stories, promising numbers, awesome interfaces, fluent interactions, satisfying experiences, and happy clients/stakeholders/customers.

But let’s also keep nudging towards the way with responsibilities.


Linear, specialized design activities have been sporadically failing and will not bode well in the future. To the organizations of the future, design is an aspect, not a role – everyone has to know the designerly ways of thinking and doing.

Going Beyond the Wow Factor

To go beyond the wow factor, we need to facilitate a new attitude towards the approaches of designing, from role-based designing to co-designing. While the former is conventionally about cooperation, coordination, and alignment, the latter is more about collaboration.

Specialization was and still is a great evolution, while it’s not for everything and anytime. Designing is not just a profession. It’s also a general human activity.

What we’re facing today is exponential acceleration, inhuman complexity, and unpredictable dynamics. For organizations who want to become flexible enough to survive, the way of designing has to be infused to many aspects of them.

Linear, specialized design activities have been sporadically failing and will not bode well in the future. To the organizations of the future, design is an aspect, not a role – everyone knows the designerly ways of thinking and doing. We still want to get people’s attention or give a good impression, but wowing doesn’t have to be the only way when more artificial intelligences handle the logic and more humans take on the social and moral responsibilities.

On a side note, the new wave of co-designing also demands the organizations to cope up architecturally by becoming transformable. A transformable organization doesn’t rely on the visceral wow factor – instead, it relies on dynamically enabling the stakeholders to think and do strategically.


Wow as much as you can when you can raise the bottom line.

Conclusion

The wow factor is a great power that comes with great responsibility.

Don’t solely rely on wowing. Don’t promote or be indifferent to the wrong attitude towards the activity of designing.

There’s a bottom line of wowing when it comes to social or moral responsibility. It’s also a fine line.

Wow as much as you can when you can raise the bottom line. Maybe that line is more about ethics rather than practicality.

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