Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ethical tradeoffs in design for kids

OK, let's complicate the situation another step.  What if you are designing a product or service and have a choice to make.  There is one option that would be more profitable, but would be worse for the customer.  They would think it was better, sales would be better, and they would never know it.  Do you do it?  Is it worse if the customer is a child?

I saw on Facebook so many times yesterday that I am sure everyone has already seen the article about Spongebob Squarepants.  They design the show to shift between scenes really fast.  This hampers a child's development of executive processing such as attention, working memory, problem solving and delay of gratification.  These all help kids get ahead in school and in life.  But kids love it because it captures their attention fully.  So if you were Nickelodeon, what would you do about this?

A saw a TED talk abstract (that I think I misinterpreted at first, but makes a better example) with a similar case.  There is an iPad app for kids that tells stories.  But if the reader doesn't like the way the story is going, they just shake the iPad and it goes in a different direction (I remember books like this when I was a kid, but not as visceral a method of changing the plot).  What does this teach?  But kids love it. 

What would you do if faced with this kind of decision?  As a designer?  As a parent consumer? 

Ethical tradeoffs.

My political blog this morning got me thinking about the workplace and consumer applications of this kind of tradeoff.  Sometimes, you need to choose whether to take the option that is in your self-interest, that your conscience tells you is the “right” thing to do, or to follow the rules (legal or company policy).  When all of these agree, the choice is easy.  You pick the good, profitable, legal option. 

But what about the doctor who fudges the code on the treatment form so he can give the low income patient a procedure that isn’t covered by his insurance? 

How about the laborer who breaks the company rules about safety in order to increase productivity and hit his performance bonus?  What about a company that dumps something in a nearby waterway that isn’t officially against the law, but is probably not great for the environment?  These decisions happen all the time.  There is no way to use the homo economicus rational model, because you can’t put numbers on these different options to compare them. Otherwise, people would always go with self-interest, which clearly is not the case.

LynnStout shares the true story about an illegal immigrant who was standing at a bus stop when an armored car drives by and a bag with $200,000 in it falls out.  He takes it home and goes back and forth all night about whether he should turn it in or not.  It wasn’t about being afraid of getting caught.  It was between $200k and his conscience.  And in fact, turning it in could bring attention on him that gets him deported.  So it’s actually safer to keep the money.  But he turned it in.  I saw something similar on the local news last night.  A guy found a load of cash in his backyard and turned it in.  The police suspect that it was stashed by a fleeing robber, but haven’t figured it out yet.  The money is in the evidence locker, not his bank account.

Have you ever broken a company rule or a law for your own self interest?  How about because you thought it was the right thing to do?

Or take the opposite:  Have you ever obeyed a company rule even though it hurt your self-interest?  Have you ever obeyed a company rule even though you thought it resulted in something unethical?  Or illegal?