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Convenience Makes Hypocrites of Us All: The Ethics of Consumerism and UX Strategy

Strategy Matters

Realizing the power of UX strategy

A column by Ronnie Battista
September 21, 2015

Recently, over drinks, an old friend and I reminisced about our high school days as suburban, punk-rocker wannabees. Back then, getting your hands on punk or alternative music wasn’t easy. Mainstream department and record stores didn’t carry much, if any, punk music. So, for New Jersey kids like us to get our hands on rare albums from punk bands—especially the coveted vinyl punk imports—we usually had to head to New York City and go to places like Bleecker Bob’s in Greenwich Village to get the good stuff.

One of my favorite bands at the time was the Dead Kennedys, a legendary San Francisco punk band famous for their frenetic hardcore sound and satirical, socio-political lyrics. To whit, they named their 1987 compilation album “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” as their commentary on the excessive American consumerism at the time. I owned that album and listened to it extensively, so for a bit of nostalgia, I decided to look for an image of the album cover online.

With a huge dollop of irony, a quick, auto-filled search string on Google landed me at Amazon, where it was indeed available. Better yet, they could mail it directly to my home for free via Amazon Prime. So, in two days, without my needing to brave NJTransit to get to the city, I could be blasting their legendary “Holiday in Cambodia” on my CD player as I tinker around my garage. The song lampooned the self-obsessed, affluent, youthful, rat-race driven, conformist working class that was emerging at the time. These people had no sense of their privilege—or how their convenient working lives would appear in stark contrast to Pol Pot’s Cambodia. The lyrics of the song went like this:

Well, you’ll work harder
With a gun in your back,
For a bowl of rice a day.
Slave for soldiers
Till you starve,
Then your head is skewered on a stake.

While a two-day Amazon delivery is certainly a step up from a trek to Bleecker Bob’s, the truth is that even buying music on Amazon is not so convenient anymore. With streaming music sites such as Pandora and Spotify, I don’t even have to wait for the postal service to deliver music to me. I can play it instantly. Right now.

And that’s when I realized that, somewhere in the last quarter century, I became that guy the Dead Kennedys were ranting about. I want convenience. Just make it easy. Make it soft, warm, and within reach when I’m on the couch.  Give me convenience or give me death! Well, maybe not death; that would be a bit much. But you get the idea. I’d like to have a more noble story to tell, but I can’t argue with the notion because, while I’d love to possess the original vinyl version of this record, there’s no way in hell I’d travel anywhere to purchase it.

And this was the germ that got me thinking about the promise and pitfalls of convenience.

The True Meaning of Convenience

Google defines convenience as follows:

con·ven·ience
noun

1. the state of being able to proceed with something with little effort or difficulty. “The museum has a cafeteria for your convenience.”

2. BRITISH a public restroom.

Convenience generally connotes a positive outcome—notably, if you’re myopically focused on receiving satisfaction from things you want rather than what you need. But convenience often means making something easy for one at the cost of another, which reminded me of John Naughton’s article in the Guardian about the somewhat shameful reality of what convenience really means. In a discussion about Uber’s hyper-convenient business model, he quotes journalist Bobbie Johnson:

“‘We have our beliefs, our morals, our instincts. We have our dislike of douche bags, our mistrust of bad behavior. We have all that. But in the end it turns out that if something’s 10% cheaper and 5% faster, we’ll give it all up quicker than we can order a sandwich.’ Convenience, in other words, makes hypocrites of us all.”

Wanting convenience doesn’t make us bad people, but we’re all guilty of this. Case in point: if you’re reading this on an Apple device—creator of arguably one of the most convenience-enabling digital platforms—there’s a chance it was made at Apple’s Foxconn plant. You wouldn’t expect to see a foosball table or designer mascot dogs in the office at Foxconn, where conditions were so bad they needed to install suicide nets.

Without looking at the labels, tell me in what country the clothes you’re wearing were made? Are you 100% certain of the age and working conditions of the people who made them for you? Do you own a Keurig or use one at work? Do you drink bottled water? Do you eat fast food? If so, you’re guilty of perpetuating the same cognitive dissonance that affects the vast majority of us who were fortunate enough to be born in a first-world economy.

While it feels good to say, “I hate to think I am contributing to human suffering and long-term environmental degradation,” I admit to all of the above. But do I hate it, really? I feel like I should, but as I write this article, I’m looking at the Donut Shop K-cup wondering whether it’s too late in the day to top up my caffeine level. Damn you, convenience!

The focus of Naughton’s aforementioned article was on Uber and Amazon—two industry-leading titans—and how both have radically disrupted their industry by making convenience a key value driver. Interestingly, both companies have found themselves in the headlines recently, in stories relating to the treatment of their employees.

The Amazon story, in particular, touched a big nerve with a New York Times article, then an employee’s subsequent rebuttal on LinkedIn. Regardless of where you stand relative to the truth of these widely divergent positions, the NYT’s article about Amazon being a bruising workplace environment hit home to many. (Note: Hot topic though this is, if you have specific views on it, please refrain from discussing them in the comments.)

The story resonated with many of us who work in corporate environments—especially some of the cringe-worthy managerial practices. (Full disclosure: Although Accenture got rid of stack ranking this summer, back in the early 2000s when I was there, I, too, ranked my people, then left the room so my leadership could rank me.) But why is this any different—in fact, it seems a much better situation—from the plight of the low-paid, exploited workers who sew our shirts, harvest our produce, and prepare our food? Isn’t there a morally relevant difference between a well-paid manager’s having to answer a few 3am texts and dying in a pressure cooker or a fire in a factory that makes clothes for Walmart? Convenience has its victims, so what makes the Amazon story so special? It got me thinking about convenience as it relates to a sacrosanct UX belief in our empathy.

The Convenience of Empathy

I think the Amazon employee story resonates with us because it’s exposed an inconvenient truth: we could see ourselves in that picture. Empathy—something UX professionals consider a fundamental skill that makes us good at what we do—is selective. I’ll define some loosely categorized types of empathy:

  • direct empathy—This applies to things with which you can empathize because you’ve personally experienced them—for example, being a parent, a Catholic, or the owner of an English Bulldog.
  • indirect empathy—This is for things that are within your cultural or demographic realm of understanding—for example, being in love, having a religious affiliation, or being attached to a beloved pet.
  • samaritrophic empathy—This is what I call empathy of the convenient, slacktivist kind. I’ve taken this from Kurt Vonnegut’s classic wink at the Good Samaritan in “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.” Unlike the selfless Samaritan, the slacktivist Samaritan is a well-to-do character in the book who suffers from samaritrophia: “Hysterical indifference to the troubles of those less fortunate than oneself.” I feel that the chasm between the lives we lead and those of the less fortunate makes it all too easy to rationalize and dismiss what are often truly terrible situations for our fellow human beings.

If you’re reading UXmatters, it’s highly likely that you are, will be, or have been part of the service economy, in which you get paid for using your brain, not your hands. So it’s natural that you can probably empathize more easily with Amazon’s employees than with a factory worker overseas.

Conclusion: The Bigger Picture May Not Be So Convenient

As UX and CX strategists, we invest much of our life in trying to make our organizations aware of and advance their maturity in true customer centricity. Companies like Amazon—notwithstanding some clear issues with their treatment of their employees—are the gold standard.

In our zeal to make all things simple, we should also consider that convenience may not be so laudable if, in the process, we degrade key human experiences such as exploration and serendipity, fail to appreciate the scarcity of resources, and try to satisfy consumer expectations that require a price point and service-delivery model that entail various forms of suffering to working people near and far.

I’m not suggesting that we are to blame or that there’s a neo-Luddite agenda that will have us all turning to mail-order catalogs from companies that sell fair-trade, sustainable goods. The data shows we’re quite happy with how things are—from the lunacy of mere millisecond opportunities to snag the super deals on Amazon’s recent Prime Day to advertised Door Buster sales on Black Friday, where, every so often, people are inadvertently killed in stampedes to get the best deals.

When we were children, our parents reminded us that we should appreciate what we had, when people were starving in other parts of the world. Then, as now, there’s a chasm between the amount of suffering in the world and the little that we, as individuals, can do to make a real impact on remedying the world’s problems. But make no mistake, this isn’t just a feel-good thing anymore. Today’s emerging workforce seeks companies that have a global, compassionate world view, have invested in sustainability, and have purpose-driven missions.

We’ll need to think more deeply about the consequences of the experiences that we create, looking well beyond their impact on the core demographic that we mean to serve. In my earlier column “10 Commandments of UX Strategy,” “Commandment 10: Thou Shalt Practice UX with Human-Centric Integrity” concluded with this thought:

“We must adhere to our core principles of helping others as best we can and have the courage and moral integrity to push back on businesses when there is clear intent to cause harm, in any form, to elicit a purchase or transaction.”

This point focused more on direct customer interaction, but I need to think bigger. While our work arguably has no clear intent to harm third-world laborers, companies’ employees, or the environment, it’s getting harder to sideline these factors with samaritrophic empathy.

Can and should we elevate the purview of our work beyond the direct impact we have on customers? Is it our responsibility to consider the larger global impacts of what we do in creating easy-to-use, frictionless products and services? Yes, because convenience has a cost.

While I don’t have all the answers, as my work is beginning to shift toward helping to build purpose-driven organizations, I need to ask myself these questions. 

Practice Lead for Experience Strategy + Design at Slalom Consulting

New York, New York, USA

Ronnie BattistaRonnie is a senior UX executive with 20 years of experience envisioning and delivering creative, cross-channel user experiences with positive bottom-line impact. Ronnie has served in UX leadership positions at Accenture, Dun and Bradstreet, Gextech in Spain, MISI Company, and Slalom Consulting. He has provided experience design leadership to over 120 clients, ranging from C-suite-level strategic solutions to team-level tactical solutions. Ronnie co-created the Rutgers Mini-Masters in User Experience Design with Marilyn Tremaine and currently serves as both Program Director and Lead Adjunct Professor at Rutgers. Ronnie served on the Executive Committee of the Usability Professionals’ Association International (UPA-I) Board of Directors from 2010 to 2012 and was formerly President of the NJ Chapter of the UXPA. A life-long lover of the real Jersey Shore, when not on the beach, he lives in Tinton Falls with his wife Tiffany and their three children.  Read More

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