For every action, there is a reaction, Isaac Newton says. Everything we do, including the technologies we create, brings results and consequences, some of which are unintended.
Dating apps gave way to dangerous scams, social networks changed our behavior, and many websites and mobile apps had problems with data leakage. These are just a few examples of unintended consequences caused by technology.
But how can we control this? Of course, technological advances will not stop, so what remains is to try to foresee these outcomes to manage them better.
In this article, understand the law of unintended consequences, how they manifest themselves, and what you can do to minimize their impacts.
The law of unintended consequences
The law of unintended consequences predicts that every action taken by a person, company, or government can have positive or negative effects that were not foreseen.
One of the characteristics of unintended consequences is that they happen over a long period, making them difficult to predict.
An interesting example is the Ford T model by Henry Ford, the first automobile manufactured on a large scale.
At first glance, we can say that Ford's goal was to provide more ease and speed to the transportation of the people of his time. And in fact, he succeeded in changing how people got around, which is why his brand and company are perpetuated today.
But he couldn't predict everything that would happen as an outcome of his invention.
About 20 years after the first car was manufactured, Ford already had 15 million units produced. This meant that people no longer needed to live close to work or public transportation stops.
This change contributed to urban expansion and the creation of suburbs far from the large urban centers.
However, in addition to these, there have been other unintended consequences, such as the need to create new public agencies, new taxes, new laws, and other forms of urban planning.
This is why predicting the consequences of new solutions is complex. Nevertheless, we should prepare for them as much as possible because certain products can drastically impact society.
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The unexpected side of technology
Ford's example is interesting but, at the same time, distant. Although unintended consequences are real, they don't happen immediately, so we may feel distant from the possible negative outcomes.
But it is important to remember that unintended consequences result from various changes caused by some kind of technology.
In fact, it is common to see problems caused by recent technologies, such as:
- scams using social networking applications;
- mental health problems due to image filters on social media;
- theft and leakage of personal information;
- dissemination of fake news;
- using technology to identify and oppress minorities.
Therefore, the unintended consequences tend to keep happening as new technologies emerge.
Does this mean that technological advances should be stopped? No, not at all. Especially because many technologies do help society in many ways, from education and work routines to health and security.
The point is that companies, users, and the government must understand that unintended consequences will always exist, and we must seek ways to avoid and manage them in the best possible way.
How human beings adapt to new technologies
The examples of unintended consequences above describe some situations that have always existed, regardless of technology.
Theft, lies, oppression, and scams have always been part of society and the world. Technological advances do not necessarily create new problems, but they might help people do the "bad" things more easily.
Mobile scams are improved versions of phone scams, which in turn are improved versions of mail scams, and so on. The crimes are the same, but how to perform them has changed.
In this sense, we can see that certain habits and behavior patterns adapt as new technologies are developed.
Therefore, understanding people's behaviors and how they adapt to new technologies is indispensable to improving products and reducing their negative impacts and unintended consequences.
How do unintended consequences manifest themselves?
There are different ways in which unintended consequences can manifest.
According to an article published in the Journal of Services Marketing, there are 3 main levels through which consequences can manifest:
The individual level of unintended consequences is perhaps the most remembered and concerns the use of technology at the consumer/user person level.
In this regard, unintended consequences can manifest themselves in the following ways:
Negative social interactions
When people use technology to share hate speech, discrimination, or offenses of any kind.
Of course, social networks were not created to disseminate this kind of speech. However, it is not uncommon to see this type of manifestation on various platforms.
When ill-intentioned people make use of technology to harm others.
Here, common examples are using social networking apps to scam and extort/steal money. Similarly, people impersonating others and sending messages via apps asking for money are also recurrent cases of intentional misuse of technology.
Unlike the previous item, there are situations in which people misuse technology accidentally, bringing losses and risks to themselves.
During the pandemic, many meetings started to be held through applications such as Zoom, but initially, they were not prepared for so much demand. Meetings with confidential content were more vulnerable and could be hacked more easily.
It is common to hear about how social networks negatively impact people's mental health, especially young teenagers.
This aspect is a serious case of unintended consequences, where there is a wave of problems related to self-esteem, insecurity, depression, and anxiety, among others.
Moreover, how some platforms and applications work can promote addictions, hindering productivity and even the quality of sleep of the people who use them.
The organizational level of unintended consequences concerns the risks that poor technology management can provide for companies.
Basically, the effects manifest themselves in two ways:
When personal data is corrupted and stolen, due to a lack of security or negligence. These attacks are not rare, on the contrary, they are becoming more frequent every day.
Check a few major data breaches that have happened in 2022 already.
Another manifestation of unintended consequence is the misuse of customer and user data by companies.
Lack of transparency, selling data, or any kind of misuse of personal information has become a worrisome issue.
Protection of Personal Data Laws have emerged, which aim to regulate how companies deal with personal information.
The final level relates to how technology is handled from a government standpoint and how this can create unintended consequences.
In this regard, we can describe the following outcomes:
Certain technologies might clash with the jurisdiction of different countries or governments.
This often happens when an application, for example, is developed to be globally distributed, but there is no research to understand whether any legal impediments exist in each individual government and country.
Some technologies may be restricted because there can be government policies for not using certain mobile apps or services.
For example, in 2019, the Pentagon determined that military personnel should not use ancestry and DNA services due to possible data leakage.
Indeed, these concerns affect governments, and technologies and companies can suffer from this kind of unintended consequence.
Governments can intentionally misuse technologies.
In countries where homosexuality is a crime, authorities may use homosexual dating apps to identify and oppress people.
How to manage unintended consequences
After these examples and explaining the manifestations of unintended consequences, it may seem that investing in technology is wrong. But it really isn't.
Every technology or action that uses it is subject to consequences that we cannot initially predict. The idea is not exactly to develop a product with no consequences but to treat them as something inherent to the process.
In this sense, to better manage unintended consequences, you can think about implementing some actions, such as:
Addressing the issue
The more people are aware of the existence of unintended consequences, the better. Especially when it comes to entrepreneurs and investors.
It's important to always think and share about business consequences and let everyone know about the situation.
Create internal groups
It is important to have a group or committee within the company that is responsible for dealing with unintended consequences.
This group has the role of advising and helping the company when unintended consequences occur.
Work closely with regulatory institutions
Technology companies should approach regulatory organizations that can assist and help in the management of unintended consequences.
Financial, pharmaceutical, food, and health regulatory bodies like WHO or ISO can be examples of important institutions that help companies.
How can UX Design mitigate unintended consequences?
Besides the managerial part unrelated to the product, there are issues related to UX Design that can help reduce the impact or occurrence of unintended consequences. These are:
Think about the social experience
How will the individuals using the product use it in a social environment? What are the impacts on different levels of society and also on the environment? What are the hidden costs of the product?
People are the center
Of course, when discussing UX Design, one of the pillars for developing better products and experience is placing the user users at the center of decision-making.
Particularly when we talk about unintended consequences, thinking holistically about people's experiences is important to reduce negative impacts.
Not only the users but within the design team itself.
When we use different perspectives to create something new, that development becomes richer and more insightful. You can then tackle issues that a single person otherwise miss.
So think about diverse and multidisciplinary teams to develop better products, good experiences and avoid unintended consequences.
Learn and make it right
Unintended consequences will happen; as technology advances, it is paramount to minimize negative impacts. So we need to learn from this and correct them as soon as possible.
No matter how the consequences manifest themselves, at an individual, organizational, or governmental level, everyone must use technologies ethically and inform about parties doing any wrong.
In light of this, UX Design has an important role to play in developing products with better, human-centric experiences that can reduce the impacts and occurrences of unintended consequences.