Research Findings

How technology developers can shape the future of work without leaving workers behind

June 29, 2023

The rise of ChatGPT and other generative AI models has taught creative and white collar professionals what many workers have long known: technological change can inspire fear and uncertainty about the future of work.

Yet, experts are increasingly getting out of the prediction business. Rather than estimating how many jobs or tasks will be displaced by new technologies, they remind us that the path of technological change is shaped by our collective choices. In fact, emerging technologies may impact the quality of work more than the quantity of jobs available.

Governments have released policy guidelines that outline principles for protecting our privacy and rights at work. Unions are seeking new ways to influence issues around data use and surveillance. Even some employers are stepping up to lead efforts to retrain and upskill displaced workers.

In a recent article, I examine the role of a different stakeholder that is often overlooked in discussions of technologies’ impacts on work—technology developers. Technology developers and designers are often assumed to have limited interest and ability to protect stakeholders with less power, like frontline workers. This is a reasonable assumption, given that developers must respond to investors, competitors, and powerful managerial decision-makers at their client organizations.

However, this perspective ignores what happens behind the scenes at technology companies. By studying the developers of a manufacturing monitoring technology, I found that developers can shape the effects of technologies in ways that sometimes elevate, rather than suppress, workers’ interests.

The technology involved sensors that were installed in clients’ manufacturing machines to collect key production information. The sensors transmitted data to touch-screen tablets that were used by machine operators, TV monitors that displayed metrics across shop floors, and a cloud-based web app used by operations managers and engineers to identify and pursue process improvements. In all, this technology was one example of the trend towards the Industrial Internet of Things, Industry 4.0, and Smart Manufacturing.

The new visibility of real-time data was not welcomed by all stakeholders. While machine operators occasionally found the data to be useful, many thought of the technology as “Big Brother.” In addition to operators’ concerns about surveillance, they disliked the additional tasks they were required to perform, such as entering scrap numbers and machine downtime instances on their touch-screen tablets.

The technology company, which I call “ProdTech,” did not initially employ professional UI/UX designers alongside software engineers. As it grew, it added these critical team members to the development team. I followed the work of this team for over a year, gaining an in-depth view of their processes and challenges as they sought to reduce user complaints and improve the design of the technology.

I found that, far from dismissing operators’ concerns, developers embarked on a deliberate effort to make the technology a better tool for operators. Developers took this approach for a number of reasons. They viewed operator resistance as a threat to the viability of their technology, their professional norms involved incorporating user feedback in participatory design, and they found ProdTech executives to be supportive of their efforts.

Many technology companies do not achieve this internal commitment to taking workers’ concerns seriously and devoting resources to respond to their needs. Establishing an operator-centric approach was only the beginning of developers’ work, however. Their larger challenge was to balance the interests of operators with the interests of the managers who used the technology.

Any smart phone user will be familiar with the ease with which software interfaces and features can be updated. To push out new updates to their technology, ProdTech developers established a common design methodology that involved frequent user feedback, piloting of initial design changes, and iterative updates. They collected feedback from both operators and managers when updating the touch-screen tablets.

This feedback revealed longstanding tensions in the manufacturing hierarchy. Power dynamics between managers and operators led them to have different opinions about how the technology should work. Managers across different client organizations also shared divergent preferences with developers, because different clients had different organizational structures and cultures.

Developers had to respond to these divergent preferences when developing prototypes and releasing new features. They had to do so in ways that were consistent with their goal of making the technology a “tool for operators,” in ways that were technologically feasible, and in ways that avoided alienating the client managers who paid their bills. I found that developers used a set of sometimes covert tactics to accomplish this.

One example can helpfully illustrate these dynamics. In the initial design of the touch-screen tablets, tablets were backlit by bright colors that indicated the status of each machine (e.g., tablets turned red for machines that were significantly behind on production). During user feedback sessions, developers noted that the tablet status colors were a key issue.

Operators often expressed their dislike of the status colors. On the other hand, managers expressed that the colors were useful for them to get a sense of the current state of production across their factories.

One tactic developers used in response was to scope the nature of manager-operator relations to understand the underlying reasons behind users’ preferences. They found that some managers thought operators simply had unreasonable complaints about being monitored. Digging deeper showed that most complaints came from operators who were running production jobs that required significant troubleshooting and operators that ran multiple machines simultaneously.

After scoping, developers more deeply understood operator feedback. They learned that the status colors were sometimes inaccurately or unfairly showing these operators to be behind on production when there were more complex issues involved. In response, developers designed a new tablet interface that softened the status indicator color and made it less obtrusive.

Developers piloted the prototype with some clients before officially releasing it. While some pilot clients—both managers and operators—appreciated the new design, managers at other pilot clients disliked it. When exploring these different preferences across organizations, developers found that the strongest request to return to the original design came largely from clients with unmanned machines.

Developers responded by creating multiple versions of the tablet interface. While the default design reflected the new, softer status colors, developers worked with some clients to create an alternative design that was more similar to the original. This allowed managers with unmanned machines to easily view machine status when looking across their factories from a distance. Since these clients had few operators, the design held minimal negative implications.

Overall, I show that developers responded to cross-occupational differences in preferences by attempting to align the interests of operators and managers when creating design prototypes. They responded to cross-firm differences by buffering the influence of dissenting managers, for instance by creating personalized designs or by deflecting feedback from managers who were particularly antagonistic towards operators.

Through this process, ProdTech developers show us that managerial control is not absolute. Technology developers can influence technologies’ impacts on work by setting a pro-worker product strategy and by negotiating divergent user preferences. While this approach would likely have minimal impact for technologies that are explicitly designed to deskill or replace workers, it has promise in many other instances. It remains critical to push for policy responses, union action, and positive employer practices, but technology developers should not remain an overlooked party in their ability to shape the future of work to be more equitable and rewarding than it is in many workplaces of today.

Read more

Jenna E. Myers. “When Big Brother is Benevolent: How Technology Developers Navigate Power Dynamics among Users to Elevate Worker Interests” in Academy of Management Discoveries 2023.

Image: via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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