Most of our work in tech only serves the most basic urges of our brains. It’s a problem that needs fixing.

The culprit is how metrics and success are framed in product development and its unintended consequences.

Imagine a hypothetical product, a social network for news. A team working on growth might establish a few metrics to improve, such as increasing the number of conversations on the platform by 20%. The job to be done is to ‘meaningfully improve conversations on the platform.’

After experimenting for a year, they hit their goal with much fanfare, surpassing expectations. Even churn on the platform was reduced. The main reason?


They developed an AI model that changes headlines based on individual preferences so they get the gist of the news from it. This came from an observation that most people skim through the headlines, so the team wanted to provide more value from that experience. However, the model also takes into account what drives more engagement. And the more enraged users were, the more they engaged. After a while, the system was filled with rage-bait tailored at the individual level. Conversations became a cesspool of toxicity, where people never seemed to agree.

That way of working optimizes our most primal selves but does not encourage what’s best for people and society. Mature teams would consider the quality of the conversations. But how do you stop if you’re driving those numbers? Especially when that engagement is driving, in this hypothetical situation, a 60% lift in revenue from ads?

Designers have an important role in avoiding these situations by bringing a more humanistic look that caters to the business’s needs and also what’s best for people at higher levels, beyond basic urges and reactions.

A few things can be put into place to avoid that:

  1. Make qualitative insights as important as quantitative metrics. Metrics can tell stories of the past, while user research provides glimpses into the future, allowing you to take action before it’s too late.
  2. Define “higher self” success outcomes for your product and consider them as seriously as any other business metric. Start a forum with key leaders to discuss them. Tech often has unintended consequences that are ignored.
  3. Define your own or your team’s ‘Hippocratic oath’. Be specific about what it means to do good in the things you do beyond business success or metrics, as they can have a good, lasting impact

There are many instances in the news about technology and the negative consequences that come with it. However, these consequences are usually unintended. Our current system rewards the simplification of reality through metrics and often overlooks the effort required to do good in the world.

Designers have a unique opportunity to change this conversation and adopt a more humanistic approach to business that produces results while also doing good in the world.

It’s a tightrope that makes the challenge more exciting to me.