One Year Ago, I Gave This Talk On Humane Design: Is there a business case for Humane Design?

Question for everyone: Do you feel that there is a business case for humane design? Since I gave this talk, I’ve mulled over if my initial assessment was correct — that it’s in companies’ long term best interests to design and behave ethically. There is some supporting evidence for humane design being good for business like the practice of impact investing, companies adopting an ‘ethical bottom line’ & KPI, and B corps, but at the same time there are companies like Facebook and others that appear imperturbable despite their clear ethics violations on a prodigal scale.

1 Like

I think the important thing to remember is that there are companies (like the one I co-founded!) that are conceived to provide dignity and value to users. It’s core to what we do, day in and day out. It’s the reason we got into this work in the first place. It’s more than just our mission or purpose, it’s our DNA.

Then there are companies like Facebook that were built to make money, are now publicly owned, and are basically on autopilot, run by executives who don’t even have the vocabulary to recognize the ways they’re hurting society; or, it’s just too painful for them to look in the mirror, so they don’t. One thing about humans is that we’re good at rationalizing the ways we’re a little bit evil. So we trick ourselves. I know some people at Facebook struggle to sleep at night. Others, I’m sure, have no problem. Obviously, many have left for ethical reasons. But I think that some of the top dogs still think that they’re “connecting the world” or whatever, and that it’s up to end users to make smarter decisions.

Interesting conversation.


there are companies (like the one I co-founded!) that are conceived to provide dignity and value to users.

Very true! A friend of mine—Andrew Horn—started a thank you video sharing app called Tribute, where one of their key performance indicators is ‘Tears of Gratitude’. It’s what partly inspired the talk that I gave.

I know some people at Facebook struggle to sleep at night. Others, I’m sure, have no problem.

Very true: Douglas Rushkoff (author of Team Human) spoke at Betaworks two weeks ago about how someone at Google dismissed Doug’s reservations about the accelerating rate of tech by saying “Oh Doug, that’s just because you’re still human.” as if to suggest that being human was an undesirable state compared to being a cyborg.

On the flip side, another friend of mine, Giancarlo Pitocco, started a company called ‘Purposeful’ here in NYC that essentially aims to amplify the work of HTC on the east coast.

1 Like

I am sure there is. Look for instance at Apple (which is not entirely a white sheep, of course, but still). All their products are in a much higher price range than their competitor’s, yet they are successful.

Their intense focus on appealing, elegant designs that are pleasing to the eye, the attention to the usability of their devices. They got their human-machine interfaces right, and that earned them a good reputation on which their business model thrives.

Now, almost by accident, they started building their reputation on being the most privacy-aware hardware provider. “Apple would never sell my personal data. It’s their business to protect me” is what you hear people say. No matter whether that is actually true or not, based on reputation, people are switching from Samsung + Google Android devices (which are privacy nightmares).

For SMB’s and startups incorporating humane technology is a big opportunity now, to let their products stand out amongst the big players. To get a competitive edge, and build a reputation and brand name that is trustworthy.

The opportunities that exist grow as the broader public gets more aware of the issues with products that are not designed to be humane, or that are based on extractive business models. This awareness is greatly helped by and endless stream of media articles about security breaches, privacy scandals, etcetera.

Eventually - when there is enough critical mass - building peer pressure among consumers will drive the broad adoption of humane technology. Until then a huge niche exists and there are many USP’s to be had for early adopters.

Some personal experiences as a consumer: Being on this forum for a long time has opened my eyes to many bad practices and has changed the way I consume.

For any product I read (quickscan) their privacy policy and want to know who’s behind the product, and what their business model is. Whenever I find flaws in this, no matter how attractive the product is, then it is not for me.

Take for instance VR. As a developer I’d love to follow how this field develops, but I decided to ditch my GearVR/Oculus goggles, because they are Facebook, they install a plethora of unknown apps, privacy settings that are normal on a PC/browser are missing everywhere, and e.g. Samsung VR browser wants you to accept a 58 page privacy policy through your goggles. Etcetera. A no-go area, not humane, not for me.


I don’t think this has to be that complicated. Humane design in this context is just making a net-positive product for the long term that doesn’t attempt to externalize bad and destructive practices as a kind of get-rich-quick scheme. Ideally, there should be a business case for that somewhere.

The bad news is that it may lose out in the short term to the overfunded blitzscalers (see: Sidecar vs Uber). So the temptation to hack the system are high and financially lucrative under our current economic system.

1 Like

I’m not sure the critical mass wasn’t always there, it’s just that they are getting taken advantage of to put it kindly. Stats seem to show things are getting worse, people are getting more addicted and mega U.S. tech companies are fleecing people for ever bigger profits. Silicon Valley was always actually awake to its evils, it just never cared.

The humane business model is niche indeed, and lower-profit. There is however one case, where companies which can operate at a lower cost level (I’m not sure that is possible) can produce the same services as big tech (mobiles, operating systems, etc), but make them humane. People seeing the difference between this and Big Evil’s offerings would choose the humane systems. The only problem is the revenues would be 1/10th of what Big Evil (Apple, Facebook, Google, Amazon…) make. I think few investors would be interested, and am not sure if these companies would be profitable at all given expenses vs humane income.


A humane business model won’t be niche for long once it’s implemented within a decentralized ecosystem that empowers people on a personal level. Of course it’s imperative that we all work together to make this happen. Check out this effort to do so:

Great topic! One suggestion: we can reverse the questions and ask “is there a humane case for business”? That way we do not question that design should be humane. It would be like questioning if we should treat each other fairly and respectfully. We can, instead, ask: is there a humane defense of business? In other terms: instead of asking “is humane design profitable?” we should concern ourselves with the doubt “can business be humane”?

There is a case study: when Henry Ford proposed a raise of employers’ minimum wage, shareholders sued him and won. And the case made jurisprudence. The point was that raising wages is harming the shareholder’s best interest and the board of directors responds to the shareholders, not to the workers.

It’s always possible to make a case that any regulation (for instance against dumping poisenous waste in drinking water sources) is against good business. No point even considering arguing with such to toxic reasoning.

We can ask why should business not be humancentric. Jaron Lanier says that the human being should always be the center, not tech. And we can also say that about the economy. People are the most important thing, not business. Businessess should aim at making society more prosperous, balanced and fair. Not be playgrounds for unethical manipulation, human rights violations and social coercion.


I believe for many businesses there is or will be a place where it makes sense. But with the current mindset, anybody at scale that dominates (ie Google, FB, Amazon) humane design is a secondary or non-concern. So for the people where it counts the most and can do the most damage, I don’t hold out much hope. Their businesses are built on addictive patterns and preying on our impulses.

One of the biggest problems is that most people aren’t particularly aware of the degree to which we are being manipulated, so they may not know to notice or appreciate products that behave more ethically. I’d go as far to say people will miss their compulsion loops as they’ve become conditioned. So a product that behaves well will have a much harder time gaining adoption. This is the major challenge in trying to do something the right way and build a sustainable business. It’s a harder road for sure.

I fully hope that I am proven wrong though. Love to see people acting on it and trying to make digital life better for people.