This month we’re giving away 40 copies of Pete Trainor’s best-selling book, Hippo. Half to existing subscribers and half to new ones. To celebrate, we got him to dig out a chapter that didn’t make it into the final book and we’re sharing it here. This is a world exclusive! Enjoy.

11. The best things in life are free


“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”

Virginia Woolf

Digital design and the various disciplines within, have been driven by a desire to control the actions of the people ‘using’ the service. We create tunnels and funnels and shovel people into the fat end of the digital machine and guide them through a ‘journey’ or a ‘process’ to achieve what we want (or think we want) them to achieve. In a lot of cases, this is a necessary thing to do. For example, sometimes it’s important that people are guided through an important task, like paying a bill or filling out a complex application process without distractions. Designing something paternalistic in these cases is a good thing to do. But there are also cases where this craft of digital design simply does not represent life well enough for it to resonate with ‘people’. Our journeys, our lives are not linear and straightforward. They are complex, chaotic and full of deviation.

Our lives are not linear and straightforward

I believe that the design of digital services, whether implicitly or explicitly, will always affect the lives and wellbeing of people and of the society at large consuming them. This is true in a trivial sense, since products are meant to fulfil existing and conscious needs. But it is also true in a less obvious way, since products engrained in our lives also affect the lives of people because of the various influences they might have on people’s behaviour, attitudes and needs.

By designing things that attempt to guide people along journeys, one of the influences we create is the erosion of peoples ‘freedom’. Not freedom in the libertarian sense, but freedom in the choice sense. Recent studies show that personal independence and freedom are more important for the welfare of people, in a lot of cases, than things like wealth or health. So designers really need to be mindful and try hard not to erode the freedoms of choice by always designing in the paternalistic sense.

Design can be used to influence and improve wellbeing, but going too far over that line leads us to the ethical arguments found between determination and freedom. I’m determined to achieve my goal, but I want the freedom to find my own path. Allowing people free will to make choices without any prior prejudice, inclination, or disposition is so important to what makes us human. Our choices are not only ultimately determined by designers, but morally determined by our own nature. Designers are just the people creating the opportunities to explore one’s own freedom.

When designs encourage an explicit and intended interference with how people live their lives, this also raises ethical questions. How desirable is it that designers can intervene in the behaviour of people? Should a designer’s influence on people’s behaviour be avoided at all times, or should we rather see it as a core responsibility of designers to encourage the behaviour that we want to see?

[clickToTweet tweet=”How desirable is it that designers can intervene in the behaviour of people?” quote=”How desirable is it that designers can intervene in the behaviour of people?” theme=”style6″]

Most of us cannot yet fully comprehend the importance of the fact that we are free to behave as we choose and free to express ourselves in a decent manner. We’re free to decide and control aspects which might concern us directly. It is said that those who do not understand the value of their freedom are actually prisoners of their own ignorance and unable to act independently according to their own will.

Helping people to value their freedom can start with the services we design on their behalf. Let’s start making people aware of the freedom they have to be themselves, by using all this amazing digital design we’re spewing into the world as the vehicle for that message. Let’s make digital interactions less cluttered with constraint and more fluid by nature.

As humans, we want the freedom to explore, the freedom to fail

Throughout my career as a designer, I’ve often defaulted to the parental way of designing interfaces. I chose the destiny for a whole audience. I used the ill-conceived ‘persona’ to determine how I wanted huge, homogenous swathes of people to behave. Defaulting to this approach came at the detriment of something that made the human audience tick and thrive—they love their freedom, I took it away by pigeon-holing.

When we create a funnel, we’re already eating into people’s psyche, the mistakes that make them brilliant not flawed. How often have you stopped to think about that? What about the fact that as humans we want the freedom to explore, the freedom to fail? We want the freedom to make our own choices and decisions—because that’s what makes us human.

Think about the great semantic diversity of the term freedom and the complexity of our social life and the multiple interrelationships we have between people. Let our digital world be full of the same ideals. Being given our freedom is important because it also gives everyone the opportunity to participate in decisions of interest. I get really frustrated by things like investing platforms that by design and regulation only play to the elite few who understand the language and the jargon. Where’s the investing opportunities for people who don’t process jargon or know what investing is? Because I don’t understand it, you don’t give me the opportunity to engage with it and that’s more than just bad design, it’s an infringement of my fundamental human right to achieve all that I could achieve.

It needs to stop. It needs to be approachable by all.

To level us all out and give us all the opportunities to thrive—to give us all freedom to be the best we can be. Even a lot of apps and services for everyday things like games or way-finding take away the freedom to engage on our own terms and in our own way because they’ve instinctively been designed to appeal to a certain audience. They don’t encourage freedom because, by their nature, they’ve been designed by people from that background who only know what they know.

There are good examples too—social media by design is a relatively basic interaction. You get given the platform and you choose how to use it to engage with your own chosen audience. That’s good. It has wide appeal and broad strokes.

The state of being free is aligned with our true nature

We are free spirits. Therefore it is in our nature to be completely free, at least at some point in time. Freedom gives us happiness because the state of being free is aligned with our true nature as human beings. So stop designing restraints and start designing opportunities to allow a person to flourish. Freedom is also subjective: we are only able to value it, as far as we can acknowledge how much it’s worth to us. One of my fears for the current generations being born into the digital world that we created and manipulated, is that we spent a lot of time creating those tunnels and therefore have allowed generations to grow up feeling constrained by what we decided was right and wrong for them.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Stop designing restraints and start designing opportunities” quote=”Stop designing restraints and start designing opportunities” theme=”style6″]

I talk about ‘happiness by design’ a lot and what I mean by that, is that we should always be designing in a way that is mindful of a person’s feelings as they use the products we create. How do you want someone to feel, not how do you want someone to behave.

We should always be designing in a way that is mindful of a person’s feelings

There are many things that are sources of happiness, and freedom is one of them. Just having access to information via the internet is a brilliant source of happiness for a lot of people and we should celebrate the infrastructures we created to give us so much opportunity.

One piece of analysis done by British researchers from the U.K.’s Chartered Institute of IT (known as BCS) even suggested that IT has an enabling and empowering role in people’s lives, by increasing their sense of freedom and control, which has a positive impact on well-being or happiness. It’s ironic then that once you enter that plain of freedom called the internet, and start engaging with something designed by other people, you are often faced with walls of asymmetrical paternalism. Asymmetric paternalism is a concept used to evaluate when a behavioural intervention should be made. A rule or regulation is asymmetrically paternalistic if it creates large benefits for those who make errors, while imposing little or no harm on those who are fully rational—but by its nature, it creates a constraint of which we are all a part of. A fascinating dichotomy indeed.

We need to allow people to explore and also to fail

Learning by experience is fun for people and it’s good for our health. Therefore we need to allow people to explore and also to fail. Help them fail. Allow them to fail. We have to let people make mistakes and learn from them. But more than that, experience and failure is a vital part of all our developments. Freedom of thought, opinion, creativity and faith are fundamental human rights which are found in the constitutions of numerous acts of international significance. So are we not, as digital designers, eroding freedom when we create experiences that are linear by nature and try to prevent failures? We set out to create maps and paths that are funnels through systems that are predefined to get someone straight from A to Z.

Another study from The Trajectory Partnership, a U.K.-based think tank, analysed data from 35,000 people across the globe who took part in the World Values Survey from 2005 to 2007. They looked at a number of social and economic factors that determined happiness—including gender, age, income and education—the survey showed that Internet use empowers people by increasing their feelings of security, personal freedom and influence. So why not absolutely leverage those factors in our design? Create apps, services, screens and experiences that amplify a sense of security, whilst also encouraging people to be free to explore and influence their own outcomes—do the opposite to what we’re currently doing and allow people to create errors.

Internet use empowers people by increasing their feelings of security, personal freedom and influence

To do this is going to create an entirely new approach to designing things; design that is fluid by nature and not fixed. Giving people back that slightly anarchic freedom also gives them a sense of empowerment and affinity with other societal groups. When technology is introduced into developing countries, be that the Internet or mobile technology, it instantly allows people to reduce very high constraints of getting through daily life, which in turn has a tremendous well-being affect.

So don’t start restricting and policing that freedom by creating tunnels.

Something I observed whilst visiting developing countries and looking at how they’ve leveraged these new technological advancements, is just how much more creative they are with them. A lot of people from what we would judge to be less advanced (by who’s standards?) nations are in fact making much bigger leaps of innovation in technology, from a human perspective, because they can totally embrace the freedom this thing called digital provides them. I say let’s also learn to embrace that beautiful sense of wonder and start to design digital products that play less to the constraints and more to the opportunities.

The correlation between Internet access and happiness does not appear to increase with age, meaning it’s not just kids who get something out of being online. Young or old, we’re all social beings, we all have a need for the things that digital provides in relation to helping us feel free.

When we grow up as children we are encouraged to throw ourselves in / give things a go / get stuck in. Life experience is an essential part of setting us up for the future and making ourselves more resilient. We instinctively know that we need to learn things for ourselves. We let our children play, explore and try things out—don’t take that away when we become adults by creating tethered experiences.

Spread the message that; ‘failure is good’. Tell the people you design your product for that it’s ok not to know everything. Explore. Fail. We’ll pick you up when you fall.

Danger design is not good

We make error messages red and scary—stop doing that. Danger design is not good, it’s bad. We use language that is jargon-filled and alien. Stop that, it’s pulling away at our freedom. In reality, the only way to help people learn through experience is allowing them to be active and involved in something without worrying about the dirt or mess. It helps them build the confidence to take on whatever life throws at them.

So go back to your recent designs and look for all the places that you built-in constraint and funnels and error messages and ask yourself; “is this fundamentally flying in the face of how we are raised and encouraged to behave?”

When you get to designing those screens and flows and experiences that you now want to encourage someone to feel free in, remember that freedom also comes in many forms. For example, economic freedom refers to the possibility of people to act freely in their double act as producers and consumers. Or personal freedom that refers to the right of any person to refuse the interference of others (as individuals or representatives of an authority) or during certain private activities. How often do we give people the option at the start of an experience to self-direct or be directed? Wouldn’t that be an amazing ‘norm’ to offer everyone no matter how experienced or not they are? Maybe Artificially Intelligent experiences are the future of freedom, because they suddenly allow a more targeted and tailored way of creating fluid experiences rather than fixed ones.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Accept there is no standard or normal” quote=”Accept there is no standard or normal” theme=”style6″]

Once we get into the mindset of designing for an experience that offers people more freedom, if you truly believe in that freedom, you must learn to be relaxed—both as the designer and also from the perspective of the business sanctioning the output. You will be challenged and attacked on many occasions because this is the reality and we must accept it and in the same time enjoy it. We must reject what we do not like and move on, without having limitations over what we are thinking. If we do not agree to a subject, it does not mean that there is no value in it. This is the essence of a more human approach to design. If we want to create a new value system for design, then we must be willing to give up what we already have or think we have. Accept there is no standard or normal. It is impossible to win without taking any risks.

So creating design that is more untethered and riddled with twists and turns is also a huge opportunity for designers and businesses to free themselves of the worry of failure too. Accept it’s going to fail and people will find a way through using their best wit and judgement.

“Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.”

Mahatma Gandhi TrainorCorporate Creativitybehaviour,design,failure,freedom,hippo,human,nexus
This month we're giving away 40 copies of Pete Trainor's best-selling book, Hippo. Half to existing subscribers and half to new ones. To celebrate, we got him to dig out a chapter that didn't make it into the final book and we're sharing it here. This is a world...
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Pete Trainor
Director of Human Centered Design at Nexus
Pete Trainor is a digital disruptor, author, accidental polymath, mental health campaigner and founder of NEXUS Design in London. He talks all over the world on creative & social technologies & the physiological & psychological effects on their audiences. His recently published book 'Hippo - The Human Focused Digital Book' takes a philosophical look at technology and design and challenges us to look inwardly at the self when designing future experiences. Pete regularly appears in UK national and international press as an analyst on digital media, creative industries, emergent technologies, and tech markets. Pete also sits on the executive committee of The British Interactive Media Association, lobbying government on data and privacy issues. He has a very simple mantra: Don't do things better, do better things.