Chris Chandler on Design Ethics

“Sometimes I say that theory without practice is useless, but sometimes I'll say that practice without theory is expensive.”

My guest today is Chris Chandler. Chris is a partner at Philosophie, a strategic software design and development studio. He’s also a self-described “agilista,” and in this episode we discuss how designers — especially those working in agile environments — can embrace an ethical approach to their work.

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Show notes

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Jorge: Chris, welcome to the show.

Chris: Thanks Jorge. Great to be here.

Jorge: Well, I’m very happy to have you here. For folks who don’t know you, tell us about yourself.

Chris: Sure. Let’s see. My career path is gone something like this. I started out, you know, my academic background was more in the social sciences and anthropology.

I’m from the Gold Rush generation of internet people coming up in the in the in the mid to late 90s. Fell into web design. I thought for a while I was a webmaster, I built pages for the group I worked at UCLA and then found the information architecture polar bear book, met Marcia Bates at UCLA — I was working in the Library School of information Studies. And I realized that I cared a lot more about the structuring and the conversations about what we should be doing and who were presenting it for than I did about writing code.

So, I began a transformation in my life to become a designer. And I’ll tell you it took me a very long time to sort of own that self-definition. I didn’t think of myself that way. I’m not a visual thinker; I’m a thinker in words. And so, I worked I got a job in the early 2000s — 2003 — at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online, and I was there for 10 years. And I think in many ways that that was pretty foundational to my thought process and sort of approach to online experiences. It was tremendous — and you and I have talked about this many many times — in the sense that it’s an amazing organization that is very, very user-, customer-, guest-centric. And it was also at the same time a very large corporation that was you know, very much wanting to be a global capitalist enterprise. So, the highs and the lows in terms of the experience, but really amazing to work there. And I got to work on some gigantic projects. I spent the last three years at Disney working on the Magic Band experience at Disney World. And during that process, I joked at the time that the only thing I really designed was workflow. Right?

There was a lot of teams and a lot of different groups and a lot of information and I slowly realized that I was spending more of my time with the product management group because the way I looked at it is I had such a strong perspective about being guest-centric, that I always had an opinion about priority. And you know, product managers in a big organization are supposed to set priority, but they typically — unless they’ve got a very strong metric that they’re aiming for, a clear goal — they tend to react to the loudest voice in the room.

So, you know the fact that I could help them and give them a guest-centric [inaudible] just realized I was spending more time thinking about planning and priorities and I slowly began to realize that I think maybe I was a product person, more than a designer. In fact, Kevin Cheng — the OK/Cancel writer — UX designer, also a product person. He changed my life and in one sentence he said to me, “Well, I feel like designers are about making things perfect and product people are about good enough.”

And with that simple sentence, I realized that I was a good-enough person. And it dovetailed with what I sometimes call a religious conversion to the agile world. So, the post-Disney arc of my career has been to move into product and to become a dedicated “agilista.” The big realization for me, the moment for me, was to think that all of the value of the design that I worked on, it didn’t get realized until code hit production. And so that fundamental thought has really reoriented my entire practice around, “What am I doing to make more better code hit production.” And anything I’m doing that doesn’t result in more and better code hitting production, I really need to look at and evaluate as to whether it’s waste or not, wasteful in the process.

So, I went from Disney to Fandango, the online movie ticket sales company, and then after a couple of years there I left to become a full-fledged product strategist and a full-fledged agile person at a software development consulting company called Philosophie. So I’ve been at Philosophie for four years. I head the product strategy practice here. And I am… Yeah, I am now a proud product person.

Jorge: You’ve surfaced a distinction that I hear coming up in the design twittersphere, which is a distinction between design and agile. And I’m wondering if you can elaborate a bit on that, because I’m always very wary of it, of that distinction. I think it might be a false duality.

Chris: Yeah, I agree with that. I feel like… I think this might be a little bit of a theme for me, Jorge, is the difference between the ideal and the real. Right? I think that the critiques of the agile method to design strike me as a little bit of what’s… Strawman? In the sense that I think if you think about the greatest designers, and there’s definitely, you know, as I said, the distinction before about design being about perfection. Right? I think there’s a part of design practices that is like “more time equals higher quality,” right? The ability to get all the little details right, the ability to be consistent across platforms, to think through design systems. I definitely think that there is truth to that from a from a design perspective.

But if I think about the real and the way that most of my work went, right? It’s not like anybody was ever given all the time in the world to do the design anyway. And when I worked in the more traditional waterfall fashion, I wouldn’t describe that as a method for getting the best design.

So there’s a false distinction there between the methodology of software development versus the demands of the discipline. I suffered more in the waterfall method, right? I felt like we did a lot of work to get the design right but a lot of that had to be changed or compromised in order to get the first version done as the designers worked on their design and then gave it to the developers to do. Just a very quick down and dirty example. When we were working on that Disney World project I mentioned before, we went to a lot of trouble to design custom UI components for the search field and for the dropdowns in the global navigation. And they were heavily branded and they had nice micro animations and they sailed through our creative reviews and got approved.

Well, it wasn’t until almost a year and a half later, when I realized that the development team was spending an inordinate amount of time to try to make these custom UI components work across browsers in their world of how things went. And it struck me right like, “Hey, what is the value of this incredible design if it can’t be realized?” So, when people complain that agile doesn’t give designers enough time, my first caveat is, “Well, does waterfall give designers enough time?” I don’t think you can answer that in the affirmative, to your point.

Recently I read a quote from Jeff Bezos about, “Hey, in this business, if you’re waiting till you have a hundred percent of the information, you’ve waited too long.” Right? Like, you probably should be moving forward at about 70 percent certainty or knowledge. And I think that’s the kind of balance.

Another version of saying this, which is that when we look at what it takes to build a digital product, we have the design, we have the experience. Then we have the technical aspects, the functional aspect, and then we also have the business aspects. Right?

And so, I think the question should always be, how are those three things being balanced in order to produce a product at the end of the line. So, you know, I do sometimes call myself a design traitor, a UX traitor, Jorge, because I feel like I’ve shifted the emphasis in my thinking. But to balance out those three things, I think of as a design project. I mean that now is my framing, right? I think of design thinking like, how do I balance these three forces because it’s not possible to optimize for all three. There’s a lot of hard thinking and contingent choices that goes into that balance and it’s constantly changing.

Jorge: So, it’s not that you don’t have an ideal that you’re moving towards in agile, it’s that you haven’t over-optimized for that ideal before you have all the information needed to actually do so. Is that a fair statement?

Chris: I think that’s terrific. Yeah, I agree with that.

Jorge: We actually had a previous guest on the show, Jeff Sussna, who spoke about cybernetics, and he was making a similar point. And the way that he articulated it is, he says that what he’s aiming to do is to move fast without breaking things. There’s this notion that you can move forward towards a destination a way that isn’t overly rigid and overly specified, that lets you make it responsive to conditions in the real world.

Chris: Yeah, I think that a sort of connection to talk about this — and something I’d recommend people who are interested read more about — is… I’m sort of fascinated by the movement of DevOps. So, this is sort of, again, thinking about code getting into production and working backwards. Right?

Lots of teams have got very convoluted processes for how this happens. And to me, the interesting insight from the world of DevOps is that if you can work the kinks, if you can remove bottlenecks and create a process where the code flows from the developers into the production environment on a much more reliable and consistent and fast basis, in a way it gives you that ability to move fast and not break things or to not break things so seriously that you can’t recover from them also quickly. So in the world of software we went from companies doing giant software releases, where they might do a release a quarter, or — that’s actually, could have been fast for my Disney experience, right? — maybe a release twice a year or three times a year, to companies now that push code into production multiple to hundreds of times a day.

And a lot of that is about automating those processes and pipelines to make sure that you’re not breaking things. Right? A lot of that impetus for that movement comes from the automation of the QA processes. Right? Like, I want to make sure that when the code hits production all of my tests are automated, so I know right away if something is breaking. So I think you know to me — and this is something I’m always, honestly just to connect to another conversation in our field — I feel like doesn’t necessarily get enough emphasis in the DesignOps conversation, which is you need to think about this as a continuous process that starts in ideas and ends up in code and how is the team optimized to deliver designs in production and be able to react quickly to changes?

Jorge: How do you bake into that values and an ethical approach to design?

Chris: I think this is obviously a current topic and an important topic to discuss. And you know, one of the things I know you and I have connected over the years about… You know, the fact of a personal philosophy and how that influences the work that you do. So, on the one hand, I’m very excited and positive and supportive of the idea that ethics and philosophy should be part and parcel of what we do. Sometimes I say that theory without practice is useless, but sometimes I’ll say that practice without theory is expensive.

So, if we don’t know why we’re doing something then it’s awfully hard to make improvements and understand why something didn’t go the way that it wanted to go. And you know, that’s from a practical point. But I think when we talk about “expensive,” the expense of breaking things is more — and this is why it’s become such a such a watchword, right? The Facebook motto — it’s not just breaking software, right? Like we’re talking now about maybe breaking democracy. So that can have really big consequences.

That being said, I started, I was challenged by a good friend and designer here in the Los Angeles area, Arturo Perez, who did a series of presentations starting a couple years ago about philosophy and design. And as we started talking about how we could bring that together, it put me into a little bit of a journey to try… I realized that while I had a lot of thoughts and I’d studied philosophy in school, I hadn’t really answered some fundamental questions for myself.

So, let me talk about that for a second. One issue that we have, that comes up, that is frustrating to me… And I was wondering, when I hear Mike Monteiro speak, or when I read Cennydd Bowles’s books, you know, they always felt like there were some missing elements, and I really wanted to try to identify them for myself, what I thought was going on there.

One of one of the things that’s missing is the idea that in order to make ethical decisions, you have to have a framework that you use to evaluate whether those decisions are ethical or not. And you know, in Cennydd’s book in particular, he does a great job of laying out several different frameworks that you could use to decide whether an action was ethical, right? Like you could say — and I’m not going to use the technical philosophical terms here — but you could say that one way to evaluate whether an action is ethical is based on what happens, right? The consequences of that action. You can say, but that’s sort of a post-hoc analysis, right? Like I know that this action was unethical because it ended up harming people. Another framework that you can use is to say, well if we have an agreed-upon set of rules, then we can judge actions based on those agreed-upon set of rules. And that is very helpful, but it points to the problem, which is that there are very few agreed-upon sets of rules.

And so, to jump back and talk a little bit about this from a philosophical sense, I could say in some ways this is a problem that was announced by Nietzsche when he said God is dead. Right? And so, what I think he was getting at with that proclamation was the fact that for many centuries in the West, our agreed-upon set of rules were based on this Judeo-Christian ethic. Right? Based on the rules that we got from the Bible. And so we can debate all we want about how that practically worked out, but there wasn’t a lot of disagreement among people about how would we judge the ethics of actions if we all were coming from a similar spiritual religious meta-narrative, if you will, about what was really important in the world.

And this is a crucial, crucial issue for people in the modern world, and this is what Nietzsche was trying to say. Now that that is gone, or put a different way, now that that is no longer as compelling a narrative to as many people, now I can no longer rely on the fact that you and I, working together, might have that common set of values. It undermines exactly how we’re going to go about agreeing about what is ethical and what is not ethical. Certainly, people with a religious background and adherence often challenged those of us without such a commitment to try to understand how can we tell what is good if we don’t have something like that to refer to. And honestly this problem has only been exacerbated as we’ve gone along, through the 20th century, right? I think the idea of what is agreed upon has been very much undermined by the postmodernist movement, right? If I think about, in particular, Derrida and deconstruction, to me, what I take away from that — many things, but in this context, which is that there’s no such thing as a text that is neutral.

And so even when we are talking about the ethical frameworks, how to decide what is ethical, and to decide what the framework is, we no longer can talk about that in an objective way. We have to ask ourselves, “Well, who does this framework serve and who does it not serve? Right? Who are the winners and the losers? Who’s above and who’s below in that context?”

And when I think about what we’re living through in the modern world, I think another postmodernist, Baudrillard, pointed out, theorized about another very very very modern, postmodern problem that we all are living through which is that we no longer have an ability to distinguish between reality and simulated reality. And you know, we can argue about whether that was really true at the moment when he wrote it, but we’re in this moment living through this extreme crisis, where deep fakes and fake news and pizza gate… You know, the very foundations of what we think of as truth, or as Stephen Colbert used to say, “truthiness,” has been undermined, those underpinnings. So that’s a very long-winded discussion, Jorge. But I think the personal journey for me was, “Okay, if I do not have a religious… An appeal to a greater narrative beyond this life, what exactly am I basing my ethics on?”

Jorge: I’m wondering as you’re describing this, how this line of thinking can help designers — in particular designers that are working within agile environments — to make more ethical decisions, to work towards not breaking things.

Chris: So, then I started searching for anybody who had answers to that question. Because, like I said that was… Philosophically, I was like, I feel like we know the frameworks — and again, Cennydd does a great job of doing the frameworks, Mike Monteiro does a great job of explaining our own complicit nature as designers in the world that we’re going through. And I found solace and comfort and firm footing in a what I thought was an odd place, which is in existentialism, the philosophical school of existentialism. And in particular, there’s a book by Simone de Beauvoir called The Ethics of Ambiguity.

And I think she’s most well-known for her book The Second Sex, which is a foundational text for the modern feminism movement. Really, she laid out her main thesis in that book, is that people become women. They’re not born women, they become women. And it really emphasizes the social roles. I recommend it highly to anyone, because I think it explains a lot of the critique and ongoing discussions around gender roles in society.

But Jean-Paul Sartre, he said a couple of things and he wrote many many things. And so, this is… By no means am I an expert or am I trying to be faithful to everything that he said, but just in the snapshot, one of the things that an existentialist believes is, he said, is that man is condemned to be free. So, pardon the gender-specific language there, but humans are condemned to be free, which is really… Fundamentally, our life and what we make of our life is based on the choices that we make, and we cannot choose not to choose. Or to put a different way not choosing is a choice in itself.

So, this is a very fundamental principle, and it in some ways it, you know goes to a conclusion that you know, existentialism and existentialists say that the ultimate choice might be whether to live or not live. And even if your choices are constrained — and I think there’s a lot of talk about that, especially if we want to talk about privileges and how society is structured — but I think the existentialist response is, you know, you can always choose not to continue living. So, it’s a little bit… It’s a dark philosophy.

So, Simone de Beauvoir took it upon herself, she said, you know, this is all great, but there’s no way for anyone to try to figure out how to live their life based on what you just said. So, in The Ethics of Ambiguity, she takes up the question of given this existential reality, how on Earth are we supposed to decide how to live? And the fundamental insight that that she really emphasizes is that we have to understand that we have our subjective experiences, right? We are subjective entities, right? Nobody else can know what my experience has been. And we all are alone in that; we are subjects to ourselves. And then it’s very easy to think of the other people that we deal with as objects. But Simone de Beauvoir wants to push on that a little bit — a lot — and say that really much of our lives are not based solely on our subjectivity, but on concepts of intersubjectivity. Right? Like the things that give us meaning, the things that tell us whether we’re succeeding or failing are actually things that other subjects, other human beings are involved in.

So, this is like just completely at breakneck speed to talk about, but what she says is that as an existentialist in the existentialism philosophy, your highest value should be to work towards your own personal freedom — what you might say, to self-actualization, to own the fact that you are making these choices and to own the consequences of those choices and to be deliberate about those choices — and to work towards freedom.

And what Simone de Beauvoir on The Ethics of Ambiguity lays out is, that could be generalized if you think outside of just your subjective experience and you think that actually, you depend on other human beings. And we all live in an intersubjective world that can now be generalized to say that the highest ethical action is to work towards the freedom of yourself and other people. So, this is the aha moment for me where I can say, I now know that I can judge potential actions, potential designs, my participation in the process in the world, by whether I believe it is increasing the freedom of myself and other people. Again, we can argue about that that limitation of the word “people” I think about Peter Singer and the ability to think about the rest of the natural world and animals as part of that, I think about the conversation about how we’re going to deal with artificial intelligences. But to limit it to what Simone de Beauvoir wrote, which is we want to judge our actions based on creating more freedom for people.

Jorge: One of the things about design — especially in the world in which we’re living, in which a digital product can impact the lives of many millions of people, it’s not limited to the constraints that designers working in the world of atoms face. So, you’re definitely looking after your own soul, but in some ways, you’re also concerned with the souls of others, to put it into kind of religious imagery there.

Chris: Yeah, I think that’s definitely true. I mean, I think there’s even in the world of atoms right like I think certainly when we talk about architecture, right? I think there’s definitely the same impact on humans.

So, we’ve sort of been contrasting these two writers in the two books and I want to continue that a little bit. So Cennydd does a great job in his book of sort of laying out and helping you understand what are all the issues involved. And he goes into detail with examples and it’s a terrific book about the ways that you should think about those second-order effects and how the impacts of your work are going to go.

But I think without understanding where you’re really going, though, it’s difficult to pick and choose. And so, to use an example from the AI ethics, the Amazon machine learning tool that evaluated resumes, right? And they said we’re going to look at all this data of what makes a great Amazon employee and then we’re going to use that to screen candidates coming into our pipeline. And of course, as we all know, that algorithm was very biased and tended to produce, you know, elevate white male candidates into their funnel. So again, it’s easy for us to say that that is the wrong result.

But my challenge, and the question I want to ask people is — and this is why I think you need to think fundamentally about what you really mean — is to ask yourself, well, what is the correct result? How would I know that the algorithm was producing the correct result? So, when we talk about diversity of candidates, when we talk about outcomes, I mean, you might say that it’s supposed to be completely neutral. But I don’t know that anybody believes in that anymore.

So, you I think you have to make a positive statement. The one thing I want to implore people, as we talk about ethics, I want to talk about a human flaw that’s built into us, which is: it’s very important that we appear ethical to other people and to ourselves. And so that whenever we have a conversation about ethics, I’ve noticed that we all start acting as if we are very ethical. And I think there’s a little bit of a danger in that. Because the truth is most of us can think of something less than ethical that we’ve done in the last 24 hours. And this is again back to the existentialism: we’re making choices constantly and we don’t always live up to the ethical ideals that we have. And in fact, we rarely live up to the ethical ideals that we have.

So, I’m not trying to be critical of us. I’m trying to say that this is something we need to accept, right? That ethics are ideals and we’re going to fall short of our ideals. And this is where I want to bring in Mike Monteiro’s book where he does a great job of explaining how complicit designers are in all of these problems. But it’s a little bit different to say that we should all stop working and refuse clients and turn down work and quit our jobs to be ethical. So, there’s a certain… I sort of want to give us the freedom to acknowledge that we live in a contingent world where we make compromises and we fail to live up to our ethical ideals, because I think it’s important that that we’re allowed to be vulnerable with each other in order to have better conversations.

And then the one additional point that I want to make is that when we talk about ethics of artificial intelligences, I just like to propose that to set the bar at human ethical standards would be a bit of a tragedy. Humans, we don’t have a great track record on ethics and I hope — we all better hope — that the artificial intelligences, should we ever get to a generalized artificial intelligence, I think we should all hope that that intelligence would be more ethical than human beings, not as ethical as human beings are.

Jorge: That’s a very provocative statement and also inspiring. And I think it’s a good place for us to wrap up the conversation. I feel like we could keep talking about this stuff for a long time. So, Chris where can folks follow up with you?

Chris: Oh great. Well, you can find me on Twitter, Chris Chandler, or you can email me Chris Dot Chandler at gmail.com.

Jorge: Fantastic, thank you for being on the show, Chris.

Chris: Thanks Jorge! Really enjoyed our conversation, as always.