Tobacco, Drugs, Clickbait: Are Designers Dealing in Digital Addiction?

BY ALEX MENCZYKOWSKI ON FEBRUARY 19, 2018

A Rude Awakening

There is a change coming. A movement in motion, and like the majority of technological disruptions the earliest adopters are greasing the gears in the silicon communities.

You won’t have had to dig very deep recently to have picked up on an increasing sense of rebellion against what used to be the most enticing companies around, and anger about how they design their experiences to maintain unhealthy levels of addiction.

Raising Awareness

Since the beginning of the year we’ve seen a sharp increase in the number of publications flagging the severity of the issue, as well as both acknowledgement and rebuttals from the giants at the heart of the matter. Only last week came an announcement from the Time Well Spent team about its Center of Humane Technology, an initiative aimed at realigning our relationship with technology, and which was founded those working in some of the industry’s biggest players.

For the baying public this current concern may well end up as inconsequential. Trump will doubtless keep Twitter afloat and the generation after me will no doubt keep Snap Inc. from sinking. But I can’t help but worry about what it all means for designers and product people, and the problems we aspire to solve?

It Ain’t What it Used to Be

To be involved in creating a product today can mean many different things, but by its own definition what we do is about solving problems. If you think of yourself as “human centered” then these problems are the ones of your users. Whichever label you choose to attach to your personal brand, we’re united by one consistent factor in (almost) all of our work – the reliance on digital touchpoints.

As product-orientated people our responsibility to our users is undeniable, but the idea of being “human centred” is being ousted by a “business centred” approach. We have woken up and found ourselves in an age – more so than ever – where the idea of “adding” value can mean “taking” attention. This is where it gets uncomfortable.

A Tension

The user inside me resents this new level of addiction and the dark patterns that pepper my every hour. But the designer in me admires the effectiveness and intuitiveness of the tools at my disposal, and even takes inspiration from them in my everyday life.

What I do know is that the difference between creating meaningful interactions and the art of “increasing engagement” is critical. Digital addiction is bad, but technology use doesn’t have to be. It’s not the platforms we use at fault, but the apps they operate and the intent behind them. I know I’m not in the minority when I say I want to improve experiences as opposed to conversion rates.

But, maybe it’s not too late?

Platform for Opportunity

As product people, it’s up to us how we react. If the idea that we’re too far down the garden path is true, do we need then to acknowledge this latest form of addiction by designing for rehabilitation?

Alternatively, are we responsible for shifting interest away from the idea of attention as currency? Will the drive for authentic experiences mean a more selective user – and less use – therefore a higher bar?

My belief is that this (awakening) can only be a good thing, and that the latter could be true. Attention has prevailed as the key metric, and the race for it has to date been achieved by constant optimisation. But users are increasingly switched on to the dangers of addiction, and their needs are changing.

We know designing good stuff is hard. We also know that copying successful stuff is easy. It’s up to us to demand the space to apply creativity, empathy, and maintain an aspiration to create and deliver increasingly meaningful experiences that our users want to return to.

Alex Menczykowski

About ALEX MENCZYKOWSKI

Alex is a product and experience designer at a design and innovation consultancy Adaptive Lab. His previous experiences cover a broad range of industries, culminating in a passion for new product and service innovation. He’s also increasingly interested in the social and psychological impact of technology.

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