How can we assess the quality of mediations in design?
The second level at which designers can incorporate mediation in their work, is the level of ‘mediation assessment’. Here, mediations are not only anticipated but also explicitly evaluated. This evaluation, like any ethical evaluation, can take place by investigating to what extent the mediations are in accordance with specific norms or principles, to what extent they will result in desirable outcomes, and how they fit in and contribute to specific views of ‘the good life’: good ways to live our lives.
To assess the quality of the mediations that are anticipated with the help of the mediation analysis tool that was discussed before, four steps become visible (cf. Verbeek 2011, pp. 106-107):
- The first step is rather obvious: if designers are explicitly working on a behaviour-influencing technology, they could assess the intended mediations of the technology-in-design, i.e. the mediations that are deliberately designed into the technology. The central question here is: what arguments can be found in favour and against these intended mediations, and the intentions behind them?
- At least equally interesting is the evaluation of the mediations that are implicit in the design. The heuristic tool for mediation analysis that was discussed before can serve as a basis for this. It enables designers to anticipate unintended mediations that the introduction of the technology might bring about. And therefore, it also makes these mediations open for moral discussion: what arguments can be given to support or avoid these mediations?
- A third element in evaluating mediations concerns the forms of mediation involved. As indicated above, mediations can be strong or weak, and explicit or hidden. In specific circumstances, specific forms of mediation might be more desirable than others. For many, seducing car drivers to slow down in specific zones without them explicitly being aware of it will be less problematic than secretly seducing customers to buy much more than they actually intended by means of subliminal stimuli, like emotion-evoking smells and colours.
- Fourth, the eventual outcomes of the technological mediations – the actions and decisions that eventually get shape, as well as the social practices and frameworks of interpretation – can be evaluated. All explicit and implicit mediations have effects, both at the individual and at the social level. These effects might be radically different from the original intentions of the designer. Speed bumps, for instance, will not only mediate the driving behaviour of car drivers, but can also attract skateboarders, whose activities do not necessarily enhance road safety.
Verbeek, P.P. (2011). Moralizing Technology: Understanding and Designing the Morality of Things. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.