Weekly Learning: Watchmen, Housing, Humour, and Faith

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

McKinsey Settles for Nearly $600 Million Over Role in Opioid Crisis is the latest in a long history of big consultancies putting their own interests above everything else, including ethics and human lives.


The settlements come after lawsuits unearthed a trove of documents showing how McKinsey worked to drive sales of Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin painkiller amid an opioid crisis in the United States that has contributed to the deaths of more than 450,000 people over the past two decades.

McKinsey worked with Purdue executives in finding ways “to counter the emotional messages from mothers with teenagers that overdosed” on the drug.

Where’s the accountability? None, it turns out:

For decades, the firm has avoided legal liability for high-profile failures of some clients, including the energy company Enron and Swissair, Switzerland’s defunct national airline.

Even though there’s a sign of change:

Making McKinsey and its competitors even more vulnerable is the fact that in recent years they have aggressively moved into a new line of work, not only offering management advice but also helping companies implement their suggestions.

Not surprisingly:

The consulting firm will not admit wrongdoing…

So here’s the question—

Who watches the watchmen?

Tiny House, Huge Inequality

The Case Against Tiny Houses tries to build a case against some concerning trends about tiny houses:

The tiny house movement has taken America by storm. All over the media, people and non-profits are being congratulated for their resourcefulness, their ingenuity, their resilience, and their creativity in putting up a tiny home.

And nobody is talking about the dark reality of tiny houses.

And the problem?

The problem is that tiny houses are the only option left anymore for a lot of us.

Then the author digs deeper:

…median wages have increased 29% since the 1960s — housing costs have increased 121%.

So, we can’t afford houses like before.

And it turns out, the gravity of the problem is really not about affordance, but about something much bigger, like inequality:

…by buying into them, we’re only agreeing to be further cornered into economic shortchange.

Tiny homes are your consent to the idea that committing your livelihood to 400 square feet, storing your clothes under the couch, and sleeping on the mattress above your kitchen unit is the only way to reach financial freedom.

The kind reminder is that, we can’t make the world a better place as long as we don’t change the status quo:

We’re being distracted from the cause with promises of joy sparked and environmental betterment — here is your friendly reminder that 100 corporations are responsible for 71% of industrial emissions. No matter how tiny your house, the environment will still be facing serious destruction.

We need to stop making tiny houses to accommodate the growing wealth inequalities, and instead start fixing the inequalities.

Hyperbole or not, that’s something to think about the next time you feel the urge to join the praise of the environment-wise trends of tiny houses, buy local, or ride-hailing (yes, Uber and Lyft make traffic worse).

What Kind of Funny Are You?

How to Be Funny at Work introduces a framework of four humour styles:

Stand-Up: bold, irreverent, and unafraid to ruffle a few feathers for a laugh. (Example: Wanda Sykes)

Sweetheart: earnest, understated, and use humor that lightens the mood (Example: James Corden)

Sniper: edgy, sarcastic, nuanced — masters of the unexpected dig (Example: Michelle Wolf)

Magnet: expressive, charismatic, and easy to make laugh (Example: (Jimmy Fallon)

Sure, no framework can really define “funny,” and it’s no use pretending to be. While a simple categorical framework almost always helps us think from a different angle. Cheers.

The Design Inflation

We Are Not ‘System Designers’ (and Other Random Thoughts On the Scales of Design) points out the inflation:

If you’ve been following the polarizing conversations within the experience design realm over the past 20+ years, you’ve no doubt noticed our discipline’s tendency to over-label everything , and our mind-numbing ability to switch en masse to the latest eminent-sounding job title that’s presently in fashion.

Perhaps, not unlike this:

The ubiquity of software has meant that suddenly everyone is a designer. How hard can it be? The discipline has become democratized from cross-discipline to anti-discipline. But what have we lost, now that craft doesn’t count anymore and design has become a lubricant for any social process imaginable? Design suffers from inflation, becoming absorbed into anything and everything.

Made in China, Designed in California, Criticized in Europe: Design Manifesto, by Mieke Gerritzen, Geert Lovink

The trend is real:

Many UX professionals are now labelling themselves as system-level thinkers, some going as far as calling themselves ‘system designers’.

But, as the author points out, it “feels disingenuous,” because:

…a “system designer” job title makes very little sense when considering any generally passable rendition of a ‘scale’ of design.

Having ‘system designer’ and ‘global/societal designer’ titles pop up everywhere will only weaken our ongoing argument for service design.

And the authors “firmly believe systems cannot be designed. At least not in the classic sense of the word we use at every other level below it.

Besides, the author argues that there is already well-established taxonomy/ontology for design:

In fact, being humble is preferred:

Both at the service and system level, designers have barely begun to scratch the surface. Just don’t call yourself a ‘system designer’, please.

And humility is virtue:

…until practiced, competency in all of these realms is only a linguistic illusion.

UX and Faith

A recent major event was a discussion about UX design and faith across Twitterverse and blogosphere:

Firstly, someone is losing faith in UX:

We’re headed into a dangerous time, when our society is run on digital platforms, and UX isn’t leading the way to ensure that those tools are usable. While the best-trained (and highest-paid) UX professionals are put to work optimizing the exploitation and deception of online users, New Yorkers continue to die from Covid, because there’s no easy way to schedule a vaccine visit.


UX is now “user exploitation.”

Secondly, Peter Merholz makes a wake-up call:

What’s happened by 2021 is that UX is not interesting in and of itself anymore. UX is a given.

We’re moving from “the dream of UX” to “the reality of UX.”

Things aren’t great. But then, they never were.

…there’s clearly a disconnect about how we’re framing the work, and then how the work is actually being done.

As the UX profession matures, it’s time to wake up, and begin the real work of making those dreams a reality. But just because we’re moving away from the ‘dream,’ doesn’t mean we’re giving up hope. I’m quite hopeful of our collective ability to steadily move things in a healthier direction.

And lastly, Scott Berkun nails it with How To Put Faith in UX Design:

This should not be a surprise. We know that often the user is the product, but many of us have absorbed that cynically into the equation of UX work. Sometimes it’s confusing though. […] you can have a great user experience in one sense and be exploited, or exploit others, at the same time (e.g. Uber, Facebook or even heroin). Maybe we shrug now and then, saying “I’m just the designer” and it’s not our jobs to define the business or defend its ethics. Or that working for a questionable company, given our personal situation, is the only option that we have (like the lonely male anglerfish). For many reasons it’s easy to feel like we’re attached to a larger creature, hanging on, along for the ride.

And the mistake?

One mistake we make is thinking this is specifically about UX. It’s not.

User Experience design is primarily a set of skills. You can’t lose faith in UX any more than you can lose faith in carpentry.

If anyone has lost faith, perhaps it’s only the “faith in the willingness of predatory (big tech) corporations to do the right thing.

Placing faith there was the mistake, given what we know of the species. To believe most corporations, given their history, would, without regulations and against the wishes of their stockholders, invest in good design and ethical practices above other considerations is about as foolish as hoping anglerfish will go vegetarian. Even the billionaires who choose to do good do their philanthropy through foundations, not corporations.

How do we move forward?

Your faith in UX […] comes in an unexpected form and it starts here. You must trust that you are good at UX design and that your focus, for a time, must go elsewhere. If most of the big design decisions are made by people who you think are bad at design, or are unethical, you need to broaden what you think design is.

The day you were hired you likely knew more about good design than most of your organization, including the executives. Put your faith in your UX knowledge and use it as a foundation to stand on, instead of a weight holding you down.

And for the sake of the brilliant anglerfish metaphor, please, I beg you, read Scott Berkun’s post thoroughly.

INC Publications

Institute of Network Cultures has a publication series that includes “essay collections, commissioned writings on the intersection of research, art, and activism, and theoretical works with an international scope.”

For the benefit of all, “[m]ost publications are open access and available for free for everyone interested.

I mean, just look at those enticing titles! There must be something of value to you.


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