The Case for Designers to Also Be Social Scientists

Bias is viewed as a negative thing. It’s something that can skew our decisions away from objectivity and impartiality. This potentially leads to outsize negative consequences for certain individuals, who are also prone to suffering the same impacts repeatedly.

Yet bias is also hardwired into many of our systems. Our brains use it to filter information. Science, known to be the realm of objective analysis, can ignore outliers in weighing experimental results. Societies often harbor systemic bias against their minorities.

Where the rules of logic and organization struggle, however, intuition and empathy can succeed. Today’s designers can play a vital role in society by helping to implement design in a way that counteracts bias in areas of vital concern.

Understanding shades of bias

When people talk of bias, they may not be aware that it has different shades of meaning. Most commonly, we associate it with prejudice, a lack of fairness, or being closed-minded.

However, on closer inspection, bias can offer functional value. Human cognitive biases are often cited as a stumbling block to accurate, logical thinking. Yet from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, they are actually inherent by design. Xenophobia, which we condemn today, was useful to our ancestors by selecting for the less costly error of trusting in the familiar.

In science, a drug developer would employ an apparatus for dissolution to gauge its effective performance and bioavailability. If the results fall within an acceptable range at a 90% confidence level, for instance, that’s sufficient to proceed. Enough efficacy is indicated that it would work for a majority of cases.

Evidently, there are situations where bias serves as a heuristic that allows us to take necessary action. We’ve changed so much over the course of evolution that cognitive biases may now be obstacles. But scientists continue to carefully tread the line between exhaustive testing and expediency, as we’ve witnessed recently in the rush to get market-ready Covid-19 vaccines.

Most often, the areas where bias can have far-reaching, unfair implications lie in social domains. We see this when people are denied opportunities on the basis of factors such as gender, ethnicity, age, appearance, or cultural background. And these biases threaten to pervade our decisions and actions on the smallest level.

Opportunities for social design


This is where the fields of design and social science have such great potential to overlap, and effectively counteract our tendency towards bias.

In recent years, our world has been trending towards increasing connectivity. Towards the end of the millennium, people thought the internet was a game-changer, allowing millions of people around the world to communicate and access information equally.

As it turned out, that was just the beginning of the modern virtual network. Expanded coverage of affordable broadband internet, combined with ubiquitous mobile devices, social media, and the app store ecosystem, are now cornerstones of our social framework.

Designers have a vital role to play because all of these technologies are designed for usability. Yet they also exert profound influence in the social sphere, something which design training doesn’t equip its practitioners to consider.

By expanding their knowledge into the social sciences, designers can turn this weakness into an opportunity. Instead of designing technology that serves only to reinforce the status quo and existing biases, their work can discourage such thinking and dispel its influences on our behavior.

Social science can inform design

Recent years have provided us with plenty of evidence that the creators of such influential technology have little foresight regarding the potential consequences of its use. They also possess a lack of control or willingness to react appropriately despite adverse outcomes.

In many parts of the world, the rapid spread of misinformation on social media has helped to undermine the effectiveness of efforts to mitigate the impact of Covid-19. Fake news has also been a prominent tool for political manipulation. These effects are especially pronounced among the disadvantaged, who lack the resources, security, and education to think critically and resist the sway of misleading information.

Algorithms, executed by supposedly impartial machines, are designed by potentially biased humans. They may show female jobseekers ads for lower-paying positions, or perpetuate discrimination in critical areas such as the criminal justice system.

Designers can’t operate blindly because they are increasingly being tasked with creating the systems and interfaces that everyone uses. Empathy for the individual end-user is essential to their work. Yet they can only appreciate the potential implications of their work for society if they have training in the social sciences.

Today’s designers need to realize that their work really has the potential to shape society. But it can only prove for the benefit of all, and not just the majority or the privileged, if they are prepared to broaden their social perspective and skills.