Design in the age of everything all the time

4 min read
Tim Metz
  •  Aug 15, 2016
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Technology has brought us the world at our fingertips. Shopping, dating, learning, work, entertainment—you name it, and it’s instantly available, 24 hours a day.

But this abundance comes at a price. We feel exhausted and overwhelmed, like someone else is behind the wheel. There’s always another thing to do: another task, another option, another decision to make. A line from The Eagles’ hit song “Life In The Fast Lane” probably sums it up best:

Everything, all the time.

You might think this is just the price we pay for 21st-century living—to get the upside of our technology-powered existence, we must suffer the downside. But does it really have to be that way?

In his book The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman writes that when things don’t work as expected, it is designers who are at fault.Twitter Logo Products are consciously designed, and they don’t appear out of thin air. People create the objects we use with specific intentions, and those intentions influence our lives—often more than we realize.

Norman writes mainly about the designer’s responsibility to make sure the object is intuitive to use, but there’s a broader implication. Our technology (our computers, our smartphones, the internet) is designed for everything, all the time. By making it easy to switch from one thing to another with a click, computers encourage multitasking. The default mode for our apps is to notify us of everything that happens to anyone at any time. The internet has turned the world into a 24/7 convenience store.Twitter Logo

“Products are consciously designed—they don’t appear out of thin air.”

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In such an environment, is it strange we find it harder to control our impulses? To discipline ourselves to do what’s right? This is the product designer’s intent at work—whether conscious or not. When you design for an always-on world, it’s no wonder you end up with always-on users.

No limits 

Perhaps the change that swept over us in the past decade is best illustrated by a story from my own life. In my early twenties, I made a living doing video productions. Music videos, small commercials, sometimes even weddings. 

One of my clients was an event organizer in the south of the country, a 2-and-a-half hour train ride from Amsterdam, where I lived. Every Friday night, I was the VJ (video jockey) at one of their regular club nights, meaning I was responsible for the visuals on all the screens around the venue.

“When you design for an always-on world, it’s no wonder you end up with always-on users.”

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Initially I didn’t own a laptop to produce these videos. By Thursday night, I needed to have all the footage prepared in the studio in Amsterdam, so that it could be processed and put onto VHS tapes (and later DVDs) overnight. Naturally, this caused a lot of stress and last-minute work before catching the train down south on Friday, but in the end I always hit the road prepared and ready for the night.

Then I bought a laptop and everything changed. I could now continue my work and preparations on the train! I could even finalize my DVDs on the night itself because of the built-in DVD burner.

Initially, this seemed like a blessing, but soon it also brought out the worst in me. I now planned (delayed?) everything until the last minute. I ended up working even more hours. There was never any downtime, and stress increased. The laptop broke down an invisible barrier that previously forced some discipline and sanity (humanness?) onto me: to finish my work before leaving the studio. To enjoy my thoughts (or a book) on the train ride. To be completely prepared and ready when the event started on Friday night.

Too familiar

If you experienced life before laptops and smartphones, you’ll probably find parallels to my story in your own life. Work you now take home that used to be done in the office. Your first waking hour spent in your inbox instead of enjoying breakfast with a newspaper. Confirming and rescheduling appointments at the absolute last possible moment.

The list goes on.

When we finally do take a moment to look up from our screens and reflect, we realize the constraints of our previous technology were not all that bad. We didn’t notice it at the time, but some of those limitations were actually good for us, triggering disciplined and healthier behavior. This is not to say we should all downgrade to Windows 95 and a Nokia “brick” phone, but perhaps we can take a cue from Don Norman: Design matters in more ways than just the aesthetic or physical use.Twitter Logo It also influences our health and behavior.

Time well spent

The good news is that some designers are arriving at this exact conclusion. With his Time Well Spent initiative, Tristan Harris is the vanguard of this shift. “Let’s build a movement for technology designed to help us spend time well” is the motto. And why not? The paradox is that most of us assume our technology has to function in the way it does. In reality, it does not. Those are all design choices.

“Design influences our health and behavior.”

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There is no technological requirement that says your smartphone should alert you to everything 24/7. There is no directive stating your computer needs to facilitate multitasking (something the human brain is simply incapable of). There is no law that requires you to stare into a screen while on the subway.Twitter Logo

It’s all man-made, and that means man can also undo it.

Yes, but who and how?

There are many ways in which we can rethink our devices and technology from the ground up (something we’re keen to do at Saent, taking a cue from the philosophy of Time Well Spent), but this is going to take time.

The incumbents in this area (Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft) are unlikely to change their ways, but even if they did, it’ll still take time. And similarly, it takes lots of time and effort before new initiatives like Time Well Spent and Saent change the way we live.

“Value the user’s time and attention in everything you design.”

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In the meantime, a good place to start is with ourselves, as designers and creators of products and experiences. Changing the foundation of the technological ecosystem is not easy, but each small contribution contributes to the larger wave of change. Is that push notification really necessary? Does that comment really need to trigger an email? Am I adding this feature because it’s beneficial to the user, or mainly because it improves our product metrics?

To go from everything, all the time to time well spent, here are some guiding principles to keep in mind when you design. This list is by no means complete or even unchangeable—see it as a conversation-starter.

  1. Design for Time Well Spent. Value the user’s time and attention in everything you design.Twitter Logo Ask yourself: Am I adding this feature because it’s beneficial to the user, or merely to suck them in to improve my metrics? The powerful psychological tricks that today’s software developers use to hook users are well documented, but are they always right to employ? Recognize that there’s a burden placed on users whenever you design a never-ending feedback loop, or suck them back with addictive digital triggers and rewards. (More on
  2. Design with the brain in mind. Most of our modern work comes down to making optimal use of our brains. But the brain cannot multitask. It cannot sustain attention for longer than 60-90 minutes at a time. It cannot stay calm when overloaded with information. Study the brain and learn what it likes and dislikesTwitter Logo, then create designs in harmony with that almighty human organ (the book BrainChains is a good place to start).
  3. Design for human beings. We are not robots. We need to spend quality time with other humans. We need fresh air, and we need to get up and move once in a while. We need to spend time with our families. We need to learn and develop ourselves. There’s no reason why our technology should push us away from those things. Instead, it could nudge us towards them. (Read more about our vision for the future in Empowering Human Intelligence.)

Adjust this list, expand on it—let’s make it great together. There’s no reason why technology should cause us stress, exhaustion, and other problems. Our digital tools have the potential to be liberating and allow us to reach greater heights of human potential, but change only happens when we envision such a future and start working towards it.

What would you add to the list?

Tell us on Twitter: @InVisionApp.

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