5 minutes with... Per Axbom

By Shaun Gomm | 16/04/2018

Per Axbom

1. At Camp Digital, your talk is entitled ‘Navigating the Ethical Minefield of Digital Design’, why is this topic important and what do you hope audience members will take away?

We are living in times where the Internet is affecting more and more people. Even small services, created by a few people, can easily reach many thousands of people. Countries are also expecting their citizens to perform ever more of their contacts with public sector agencies online. In the tech industry, we have become so adept and so quick to build new services that we fail to slow down and consider the bigger impact of what we are building. As people are being pushed online, there is very little to help them make conscious decisions in line with their personal goals, and they turn out being very vulnerable in the face of digital persuasion.

In the wake of ongoing privacy scandals, we are hearing stories of people being harmed online due to addiction, harassment, broken relationships, diminished trust and more. There is a greater awareness of the way things can go wrong with digital design, but designers themselves are struggling to understand what they can do to work in a better way. While the call for ethics is growing stronger it falls short in guiding concrete design work. My intent is to bring the audience new insights, and tools, enabling them to actively minimise negative impact in their everyday work.

2. What do you think is the biggest issue currently facing UX design? And how can it be overcome?

The biggest challenge is staying on top of new trends in technology while not rushing into them without first truly understanding the problems we are trying to solve. While we are seeing headlines such as ”3 ways AI will change the world for the better” and “The rise of the helper bots”, designers need to step up and be the voice of reason that asks: “What do people actually, deep down, want the technology to do?” We can answer that by listening more before building. Don’t let anyone else tell you that you need chat bots and AI without returning to the root human responsibility of design: “Why?”.

3. You’re currently working on a book called ‘Misusability’ – what has compelled you to write it?

It seems that whenever you are curiously discovering a new topic, there are new insights hiding under every rock you happen to look under. For me, this began as I was working on the inception and development of Sweden’s national online platform for behavioural therapy, some years ago. It dawned on me that if patients are harmed, then the doctor will be held responsible. I, as a designer, could have contributed to miscommunication that was the source of the harm, but I would never be considered accountable. I found it chilling that it was possible for me to work with potentially life-threatening solutions, without having to take ownership of any negative impact that could come of it.

Then, as I was considering how we managed all of these risks involved in building a healthcare system, I realised that we were adding friction to the interface in order to mitigate risk, in order to help both patients and doctors make better decisions. It was completely contrary to the design maxim of removing friction and making everything easier. It turns out that this is a big part of sustainable and ethical design: to actively force people to think about what they are doing.

Misusability then is when usability backfires, when we make things too easy and people get hurt because of it.

4. What are you most looking forward to at Camp Digital?

My first thought is “people”. I love meeting a broad representation of people from the industry, always with stories to tell and longing for therapeutic conversations about challenges in the workplace. That feeling of “these people truly get me” is invaluable. Looking at the line-up I have been wanting to see Molly Watt on stage for a long time and am really looking forward to seeing her on the Tech for Good panel. I’m also keen on learning more from Linda Humphries about how to help organisations understand why they need to be more open, as I am aware of the magic that can happen when public data, essentially knowledge, is released into the world and is free to make new connections.