After working as a designer and researcher for the last ten years, from startups to big tech, I find myself wondering whether it’s possible to meaningfully and sustainably advocate for people in a capitalist society.
I imagine that many of us will be wrestling with this question for the rest of our careers. But as we navigate structures that do not serve humanity or the planet, I’ve learned that small acts of support, resistance, and introspection, at a daily level, can move us towards a direction that values people before profits.
First, it’s important to understand the values and structures of a profit-driven world and how these elements come into conflict when advocating for people–whether you’re advocating for the people who interact with your tools and services, your colleagues, or yourself.
The values that drive a profit-driven world
A profit-driven world is structured on the basis of competition and hierarchy, which can alienate us from our colleagues and distract us from the real people impacted by the tools and services we create.
In a profit-driven world, you may hear the word ‘collaboration’, but in reality, we often find ourselves operating within silos and in competition against our peers. This can lead to a constant fear of needing to prove yourself to gain more agency in the workplace, and before you know it, all of your time and energy is absorbed in the power struggle. The more we focus on this power struggle, the harder it is to see the actual power we do have in how the world is shaped. We have access to tools, to information, to people that ultimately decide how and what gets designed. But when we’re entangled by the competition and hierarchy around us, we lose connection to the real people impacted by the tools and services we create. And when we’re disconnected from the people, we’re not equipped to advocate for them.
A profit-driven world values urgency, which can lead to exhaustion and an aversion to change.
In a profit-driven world, there is a lot of urgency to iterate, validate, and deliver in record time. But in the midst of this urgency, our creativity and energy can suffer. Team cohesion turns into chaos. Flexibility turns into rigidity. Our ability to listen gets lost. And when we’re moving too fast and feeling too exhausted, it becomes increasingly difficult to advocate for people. And yet, unhealthy urgency doesn’t grow profits either, as it is far more costly to rebuild trust when the wrong experience is built because the team was moving too fast.
A profit-driven world values achievement and success, which can undermine the act of holding ourselves accountable.
An important aspect of advocating for people is to hold yourself and your team accountable to the people impacted by the tool or service you’re creating. But when your team is feeling the pressure to achieve and produce results, it can be difficult to make space for honest conversations about accountability, the potential for harm, or reflections on past mistakes.
Advocating for people while in profit-driven structures
By understanding the values and structures of a profit-driven world, we can become better equipped to navigate it and find the small cracks of light where we can advocate for people — including ourselves.
To resist the distraction and inequities that competition and hierarchy bring, start with assessing your own positionality in the workplace and where you’re placing your attention.
Assess your positionality.
Where and how do you hold privilege in the workplace? Where might you have more access to opportunities that your colleagues don’t? Where can you afford to speak up about an issue when others might be at higher risk of retaliation or discrimination if they do? Where should you lean out of a conversation to make space for those with deeper expertise? Before you advocate for people–whether in the workplace or in the tool or service you’re creating–examine the risks involved and how your own positionality plays a role.
Find ways to cede power to colleagues and communities with lived experience.
Post-it notes and spreadsheets may seem like insignificant tools, but in reality, they hold a lot of power in how the world is shaped. But who’s holding the post-it note? If it’s you, do you have the lived experience to tackle this problem? If not, who does? Who’s voice is missing from that meeting you’re about to attend? A colleague? An external community or partner? Is there an opportunity to transfer the opportunity to them or collaborate with them? During prioritization meetings or design reviews, advocate and ensure that people with lived experience are in the room, and that they are compensated and heard.
Assess where you’re placing your attention and course-correct where necessary.
Take a look at your calendar. Where are you focusing most of your time and energy? Are you blocking off time to read the research or connect to the real people using your tool or service? If not, where do you need to say no? Carve out blocks of time on your calendar to learn and connect with the people using your tool so that you can be better equipped to advocate for them.
Meet with your colleagues one-on-one to tame the urgency and steer their focus back to the people.
I remember when I met with a colleague one-on-one to talk with him about the feedback we were getting about a tool we were creating. I showed him videos, photos, and sound recordings. “Wow,” he said. “I’m glad you showed me this evidence because I had no idea this feedback existed.” This evidence had been sent to his inbox multiple times, but he never saw it because it was performance review season, leaving him with no time to look at it. Help your colleagues reconnect to people by reconnecting to them, one-on-one. By meeting one-on-one, it requires us to give our full attention to each other and to the topic or research being discussed. These discussions can tame the urgency by clarifying where each individual is responsible for helping to move the project forward. And it can also help you build more advocates.
To advocate for accountability, start by bridging the gap between your team and the real people interacting with your tool or service.
Facilitate a conversation with experts outside of your team.
Before setting goals for the project, reach out to external communities, organizations, non-profits or individuals who have expertise in the space you’re working in or people who use your tool or service. With their consent, set up a conversation between your team and that community. By doing this early on in the process, it will help set a tone of accountability from the get-go, reminding your team that there are real people impacted by your tool or service. These conversations can also help your team get a deeper understanding of what people value, which can help identify metrics to hold your team accountable to those values. Don’t waste the communities’ time, compensate them and make a plan to re-engage with them. Don’t waste your team’s time, prepare them in advance for what to expect and get their input. Consider not recording the meeting, not only out of respect for privacy but to encourage your team to be present for it.
Find ways to feel–not only read about–the pain points that people face when using your tool or service.
Reading a research report about a person’s context or pain points can enhance our intellectual understanding of the situation, but it doesn’t hold us accountable for having an emotional understanding of it. Due to time pressures, we often abstract the pain points into bullet points, but when we do this, we lose connection to the real emotions involved. Find ways to go beyond reading about their situation and try to feel it for yourself. When it’s not safe to physically meet them where they are, find ways to show a two-minute video clip from the research interview before you begin your next meeting or create simulations that could help your team feel the pain points that occur when people use your product. (i.e. Change the language on your device to a language you’re not familiar with to simulate what it might feel like for a person who doesn’t speak your language to use the tool.)
When setting out to feel the pain points, you may find yourself emotionally and psychologically affected by the stories and experiences. It’s important to know when to lean out to protect yourself and to advocate for this in the workplace. Advocate for others by giving your colleagues the permission to do the same when necessary. (Check out this report by Al Akhawayn University that highlights various tools and methods for Self-Care in Emotionally Demanding Research.)
Advocating for people in a profit-driven world will lead you on a fast-track to burnout if you’re not advocating for yourself.
Rest is a form of resistance.
If we aren’t advocating for our own health or right to rest, then we won’t be equipped to advocate for others. Assess when and how you will step away from this work to avoid burnout. If you have reached the point of burnout, make it your top priority to step away–both physically and digitally. Turn off notifications, remove email/chat access on your personal device, hide people and/or companies on social media that will trigger you.
Cultivate an identity outside of the workplace.
Advocating for people in a profit-driven world does not come with accolades and rewards. It often goes unseen, which can leave us feeling confused and disappointed about our own self-worth. It’s important to recognize this and find ways to cultivate an identity outside of the workplace. Resist attributing yourself to labels like ‘Company name-er.’ Volunteer, donate, join a community, take a class. Engage in a project where you are contributing towards something that is outside of the profit-driven world. And if this feels too daunting to do, then first, rest.
It will take more than one person, over the course of time, to dismantle and reform the profit-driven structures that do not serve humanity or the planet. Small acts of support, resistance, and introspection can move us forward, but only if you take care of yourself along the way.
Lauren Celenza is a designer and writer, working to bring equity and humanity into the dystopia of the tech industry. Formerly, she was a Design Lead for Google Maps and an initial member of the Alphabet Workers Union. Her work has been featured in Forbes and The Economic Times. Explore her work here or subscribe to her newsletter: Where Do We Go From Here?