Designing with a conscience

4 min read
Will Fanguy
  •  Mar 19, 2018
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Do you ever feel like you’re addicted to Twitter? If you go more than a few hours without checking Instagram or Snapchat, do you get a little twitchy? Good news: it’s not your fault.

Recent studies have shown that evolutionary biology may be behind our persistent desires to check our the latest (or “Most Relevant”) news in our social media apps. It turns out that hundreds of thousands of years worth of human progress has driven our need to be social.

Samuel P. L. Veissière and Moriah Stendel, from McGill University in Montreal, have concluded that smartphones are an “unhealthy platform for a healthy impulse.” We have a biological need to seek information (hello, 24-hour news channels) and to connect and learn from our peers. Finding and creating common patterns has, in the past, been the driving force behind humans forming groups and cultures.

“We have a social responsibility to design products and services that are not detrimental to society and its citizens.”

Our brains set off injections of dopamine—a brain chemical that makes us feel good—when we connect to others and learn about them. It’s been this way for generations, only now it’s our smartphones and apps that trigger the rush as opposed to meetings and conversations.

All good so far, right? Technology is helping us find common ground with those around us.Twitter Logo It’s making it easier for us to create virtual communities that span across continents. Sounds great.

Enter large technology companies and their “business goals.” Veissière and Stendel posit that tech companies have implemented random reward systems that capitalize on our need to connect. They then use that need to create and fuel an addiction.

Every time you hear the tri-tone notification, and every time you feel that distinctive buzz in your pocket or purse, you get a tiny little dopamine rush. Like other types of drugs, a little bit only goes so far for so long. So you enable more notifications. You make it easier to pull the handle on the smartphone slot machine.Twitter Logo

It’s unhealthy. There’s what former Google product manager Tristan Harris calls “an arms race for our attention.” Companies are using those little hits of “feel good” endorphins to keep their apps on our screens. When business goals are centered around engagement, retention, and time spent in an app, some companies (and some designers) will use every tool at their disposal to hit those benchmarks.

That’s not right. As designers, we have a social responsibility to design products and services that are not detrimental to society and its citizens. While that responsibility can sometimes be seen as at odds with what our managers ask us to do, there are ways for us, as designers and as users, to create things that are both socially responsible and business goal-oriented.

A design-centered solution

So how can we do what’s best for society while aiming to also do what’s best for our companies? The good news is that it’s not an either/or decision. By following some digital product design best practices, we can help our bosses and our bottom lines while simultaneously looking out for our users.

Related: Design thinking for chatbots

First things first: Follow the guidelines and the process of human-centric design. We like to call it design thinking because it shows us how we can put thought and consideration into the design process.

By utilizing the five stages of the design thinking model, you’re putting your users first. While this might seem antithetical to business goals at first, take a step back and think about this. If you’re putting your users first and focusing on their interactions and their experience, you’re designing a product that people will want to use. If your product is well designed and user-focused, you’ve made it appealing without needing to use the bubbles and dings your competitors rely on. If you’re designing for your users, you’re designing a product that will generate traffic and engagement for your company without having to resort to messing with your users’ minds.

The other thing designers can do to design for their users is to minimize or eliminate those little red dots. They’re what New York Times columnist John Herrman calls “Bubble Wrap laid over [our] entire digital existence.” He says, “[t]hey don’t so much inform us or guide us as correct us: You’re looking there, but you should be looking here.” Pro tip: Don’t do that.

The good news is that both Google and Apple (the companies behind the world’s two most used smartphone operating systems) are aware of the damage constant notifications do to the overall user experience. Google’s Material Design guidelines say,”Notifications should not be the primary communication channel with your users, as frequent interruptions may cause irritation.”

“We can help our bosses and our bottom lines while simultaneously looking out for our users.”

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On the other hand, Apple, in its guidelines, is a bit more stern with its notification guidance: “Minimize badging. Don’t overwhelm users by connecting badging with a huge amount of information that changes frequently. Use it to present brief, essential information and atypical content changes that are highly likely to be of interest.”

In this case, do what the big companies ask you to do: minimize notifications. Do your part to eliminate the notification reward system. If you absolutely must use notifications, make them as unobtrusive as possible. Yes, users can disable notifications. But don’t make it so they have to. Then your über-important pings still make it through and your users aren’t being pestered. It’s a win-win.

A people-centered solution

Designers aren’t just product planners and creators. We’re product consumers as well. In addition to the best practices for design outlined above, here are some product interaction tips for your own personal behavior as well.

Related: How microinteractions improve your UX design

First, be self-aware. Tristan Harris points out as time progresses and technology gets smarter, “[technology is] going to get better and better at steering us toward its goals, not ours.”

Know at the outset that we can’t always predict or choose how we’re going to react to the choices technology makes for us. Harris says that, “All those people who are working to give you the next perfect thing on YouTube don’t know that it’s 2 am and you might also want to sleep.” We need to be conscious that technology is trying to steer us towards a particular goal, regardless of whether or not it’s in our best interest.

And as long as you’re upping your awareness, keep in mind that many of our interactions online, particularly those rooted in social networks, can be akin to shouting into an echo chamber. Be open to conversations instead of constant engagement. Instead of a fragmented “conversation” over the course of a few hours (or days), when you’re getting interrupted multiple times an hour, engage in a longer form of discourse.

“Yes, users can disable notifications. But don’t make it so they have to.”

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A constant drip on interactions means two things: you can’t concentrate on the conversation, and you can’t focus on what’s happening outside the conversation. Instead of being two places at once, you’re in neither place. Setting aside time to focus on the topic at hand will lend itself to more opportunities for clear and meaningful thought.

Finally, don’t compare your life to someone else’s timeline. Everyone else’s life is full of ups and downs, just like yours. Timelines and news feeds are edited to show the best of one’s life, not the entire picture.

The best we can do is observe and learn. Better yet, celebrate your (and other people’s) successes while keeping a fair amount of skepticism in the back of your mind.

Image from Gizmodo

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