Why we must design technology to benefit society

The pandemic has led to unprecedented social and economic upheaval

The most vulnerable people in society have been impacted the most and, whilst unemployment has fallen, the cost of living continues to rise alongside an escalating fuel and energy crisis which are impacting economies worldwide.

With people now looking at where the responsibility for this social and economic inequality should lie, it’s time for organisations to ensure their technology products and services are designed in a way which tackles complex challenges, such as ethical practices, head on. In order to achieve this, those designing technology must focus on truly sustainable innovation and devise long-term solutions which are designed to implement real change and drive positive outcomes across society. Cutting corners by implementing easy, short-term fixes simply won’t work.

An era of social value

A rise in cost of living, spiralling inflation, and a worsening energy crisis means we now find ourselves undergoing a transition towards a new era of social value – one where businesses are increasingly measured by their environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria. While the expansion of digital technologies has helped organisations become more productive and improved employee satisfaction across industries, more needs to be done to ensure technology is playing a central role in facilitating this shift.

Technology has, in recent years, broadened access to critical services, for example the What3Words app allows those needing medical care to quickly disclose their locations to emergency services, while advances in telemedicine have enabled those living in remote locations to better access emergency medical treatment. There is however, further potential for tech to combat the major issues we face, such as climate change and unequal access to healthcare. But, where should the organisations responsible for designing technology solutions start in ensuring their solutions can truly benefit society in the long-term?

1. Incorporating user research

Firstly, when designing technology and services for societal benefit, it’s important to begin the design process with detailed up-front user research. This can help provide greater insight into the issues that matter to users and stakeholders and allows the product or service to be tailored in a way which addresses their needs.

This can also help contribute towards a greater understanding of how the product or service will truly benefit society in the long-term, while also informing the short-term delivery of a single or specific outcome. Doing so will enable teams to not only design solutions which account for the bigger picture, but to also measure and manage the achievement of this projected societal change.

2. Ensuring accessibility and inclusivity

Accessibility and inclusivity are another crucial aspect of designing technology to benefit society. While a growing number of services are becoming digitalised, it’s important to remember not everyone is digital native. For example, while the pandemic has generally increased accessibility to digital services, around 5% of people living in the UK still don’t have access to the internet.

This makes it even more vital for any technology designed to address the needs of all sectors of society, and that accessibility and inclusivity are prioritised from the onset of the design process. As such, providers need to ensure all users are considered and represented when conducting user

research – this will allow the solution to address the needs of wider society without impeding or diminishing the value the technology provides to the businesses deploying them.

3. Adopting a user-centric approach

Adopting a user-centric approach also forms an important part of the design process. Assessing the needs of an individual, business, or sector can provide greater insight into the issues affecting users and wider society on a day-to-day basis, supporting the creation of solutions which drive sustainable innovation.

However, while gathering information on user needs and demographics can help provide a greater understanding of citizen needs and expectations, it’s also important for organisations to adopt an ethical approach towards designing technology. By considering the potential unintended consequences of data use and collection – including bias, discrimination and the spread of misinformation – and ensuring data is collected and used in an ethical way, organisations will be enabled to design technology and services with the user at the centre. This will also ensure accountability, transparency, and fairness remain at the heart of the development process.

4. Prioritising accountability and transparency

While it’s important to incorporate user research into the initial stages of the design process, it’s also vital that organisations are open and transparent about how they use the data they collect – this could mean educating users on the different types of data being collected, and explaining how it will inform the overall design and outcome of the product or service.

In doing so, citizens will feel more empowered to make proactive decisions about the information they share, increasing public trust and confidence in technology. This, in turn, will ensure that organisations not only remain compliant with existing regulations, but are also accountable about the way they collect and utilise end-user data.

Final thoughts

As we continue to feel the effects of unprecedented social change and economic upheaval, we have a duty to design products and services that positively impact society’s most vulnerable in the months and years ahead.

About the Author

Andy Whitehurst is Chief Technology Officer at Sopra Steria UK. Sopra Steria, a European Tech leader recognised for its consulting, digital services and software development, helps its clients drive their digital transformation to obtain tangible and sustainable benefits. It provides end-to-end solutions to make large companies and organisations more competitive by combining in-depth knowledge of a wide range of business sectors and innovative technologies with a fully collaborative approach

Featured image: ©Andrey