Design is founded in persuasion. Don’t add any subtext to that statement, it’s true in its purest form. We are creating things that are engineered to persuade our users to go from point A to point B. Sometimes an easy sell, we often start by convincing others that they should consciously choose to leave point A in order to get to point B.
And we make thousands of decisions informed by these persuasive pathways every single day. Though we’ve gotten better at allowing our subconscious to handle these kinds of choices, they still compete for our limited attention on an infinite loop.
Persuasion in its essence isn’t an evil endeavor. Most often the reason we’re persuading users is that we believe that whatever lies on the other end of that choice will improve their lives. Persuasion is woven into the fabric of human connection. We are constantly persuaded by others to make informed decisions about how to live each day and how to fill our time.
We tread into dangerous waters when the attention we’re seeking from our users is commodified. The stinging truth is that we all have a finite amount of time. And where there is a depleting resource, reverence should also be.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “time is money.” What a terrible economic principle. It’s presented so matter-of-factly, however it’s just bad critical thinking.
Pause. Think about it for a minute.
The more you rationalize it, the more the logic crumbles. However in the modern age, we’ve started to conflate time-related terms into a problematic mess. Words like engagement and attention are often thrown around without nuanced distinction. I’d argue that we’re really just talking about time. Specifically, our users’ time. That’s the real backbone of an attention economy. This scarcity model, however, comes at the risk of our audience’s wellbeing.
What does good design have to say about honoring our users’ time? When this engagement devolves into a commodity, it becomes a fierce competition leaving users in the crosshairs of economic interests. This can often look like using shortcuts to gain more of our audience’s valuable attention instead of respecting their humanity.
Like persuasion, competition also isn’t an evil endeavor. We experience its benefits on a daily basis in free market economies. However, the pitfalls can become quite ugly when the object of our longing belongs to someone else. Design becomes less utilitarian and morphs into a hypnotic vortex of endless content.
No one is exempt. Designers and humans alike find this pattern very seductive and easy to subconsciously gravitate toward. And so dark patterns form out of these good intentions. Many businesses, organizations, and brands truly believe they are helping society by seeing the competition for their users’ time as a valiant effort to overcome rather than a problem.
Likewise, engagement itself is not inherently malicious. There are many valuable ways to use our time consuming media. However, ethical issues arise when users use our products with the hopes of executing tasks quickly and are instead enticed into a mindless, addictive activity.
Designing responsibly requires a more holistic view that considers a life beyond the time spent with our media. Addicts are not free, so it is only in creating media working against addictive hooks that we can create liberated users. The same users that have rich lives apart from the content they consume.
This discussion quickly becomes inseparable from our previous explorations into intent and integrity. We have to start with the basics by evaluating what we hope our design will achieve. Form adds flesh to the bone structure of function. Every design begins with the hope that people will do something. It is only by considering the cost of this engagement that we can create something that honors them fully as humans. Efficiency alone can’t be our goal.
We all believe in the golden rule. (And if you don’t, you’ve perhaps failed the psychopath test.) We can even view it through a design lens: Design only the things you would want to consume. However, if we truly practiced its counter-cultural demands, we would have no dark-patterns or endless cycles of manipulation infecting our discipline.
There’s a razor-thin line between persuasion and manipulation among our ethical standards as designers. What’s even more problematic is that this already thin line gets blurry when users can’t tell the difference between the two tactics. Habits can be really hard to break because we’re often not aware that they are forming us in our consumption patterns.
It helps to think about the media I’m creating in its proper place in the lives of users. I view media as a tool that has a distinct purpose. Even if its purpose is for entertainment or immersion, there is a use nonetheless. I think it’s really important to remember that a user’s experience with your product is just one tiny aspect of their daily lives. Though that interaction may have tremendous implications to their livelihood, the time spent with the media itself is inconsequential when compared to many of the visceral aspect of our existences.
It’s similar to peering at the stars through a telescope. The sheer size of our universe should humble us as we drift through the nebula on this pale blue dot. This humility should be carried into our work. It requires us to think differently about how audiences engage with our work. It requires us to redefine what makes media successful.
If human history has taught us anything, it’s that the emergence of new technology rarely comes with lengthy discernment. It’s not in technology’s DNA to slow down. So we adopt these advancements and only ask where we’re going once we’re deep down the rabbit trail and out of breadcrumbs.
Engagement metrics are no different in this regard. Capturing data about how users interact with our products has always been the white whale for marketers. The days of, “If we only knew the numbers!” have passed. Now there are analytics for everything. However, what’s happened with this endless quantification hasn’t looked like wisdom. Rather, it’s looked like obsession.
This also brings us back to our conversation about time. So many platforms are engineered to fill more and more of your time. In our economy, these predatory business models have been touted as success stories. Not only that, they’ve been handed the microphone as experts. Downstream, we’ve become just as obsessed with these tantalizing metrics, but we’re not exactly sure why.
“If only we could get them to spend more time with our product” becomes the pipe-dream we fantasize about without ever asking why they need to spend more time with our products. What if our products are designed to work efficiently, engineered to be functional, and devised to be helpful?
“Wait a minute,” you may ask. “Wouldn’t that mean that they would spend less time with our media?”
It seems so simple it just might work. Yet, it feels swimming upstream. We’ve muddied the waters with goals that do nothing but create zombies. We aren’t honoring the fact that they may want to do something with their time besides get sucked into our flawlessly designed wormholes.
But therein lies the rub: Addictive behavior is better for the bottom line. Drug dealers have known this for centuries. Is this model good for humans? Of course not! Again, addicted people are not free. Causing users to be addicted to your platform may create a consistent revenue stream, but it will never contribute to humanity’s greater good.
How do we honor the engagement of others with the design we produce? How can our efforts becomes selfless and reverent to the time of others?
Here’s a start:
1. Slow down.
Online interactions are built for efficiency and speed. Slow down and note how interfaces make you feel physiologically and mentally. Especially make note of times when the design or interactions in a particular platform cause anxiety. By experiencing these realities yourself, you can gain perspective on the pitfalls you will inherently create through your work.
2. Talk to your users like people.
Anxiety, depression, and addiction can be exacerbated by technology. But we don’t have to study psychology or neuroscience to observe behavior and modify our practices for the better. Do user testing that always allows you to speak directly with your users rather than form distant assumptions about their behavior.
3. Cut out the jargon.
As someone who can barely speak his native tongue, this feels a bit awkward for me to say, but language matters. The marketing-speak we bring to the table molds how we consider the problems we’re trying to solve. When we throw around terms like “conversions” and “KPIs” we turn human beings into data points. Use language that reflects the design goals revealed through your user research, and you’ll humanize your practice in the process. When “conversion” becomes reaching out for help or contacting a real person, we consider behavior more holistically and humanely.
What happens when you’re designing something that you know could negatively impact the mental health of your users? As designers, our chief role is to advocate for our users. It will take more effort. It won’t be as efficient. It may even cost you more money. However, it could lead to a healthier society of people who aren’t preyed upon by the media they consume. Let’s strive to foster communities of engaged users — not hopeless addicts.
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