Technology is so deeply ingrained in people’s lives that it now produces numerous toxic side effects. More and more people begin to realise it and are trying a digital detox, but they are not the only ones. Even tech giants start to address the topic of digital wellbeing.
Google and Apple, for instance, both released a set of tools at the beginning of the year, acknowledging, ironically, the addictive problems induced by technology.
The information age gave us a digital hangover full of distractions, anxiety and addiction issues and in this regard, digital wellbeing is emerging as a potential cure: technology that improves life and fosters healthy habits.
But how can we design such technology for the well-being of users?
I work in the tech industry, more specifically for a deep-tech company builder, and I feel that we lack a common framework and principles to follow in order to make digital well-being become a reality. This is why I wrote this article.
How technology is harming us
The economy of attention and mental pollution
Information technologies produce many interactions — notifications and the like that distract us for the purpose of getting our attention. This cognitive overload reduces our attention span in the long run, our ability for deep-thinking and maintained focus.
Technology is the new tobacco
How often do you check your smartphone or refresh social media? Just in the last 10 minutes, 34% of people have checked Facebook and today, the average user will check their smartphone 150 times. Our use of technology has turned into addictive behaviours that were carefully designed by the tech industry. Take Instagram for instance, the social media withholds “like” notifications to certain users with the sole purpose of increasing the opening rate of the app.
“The paradox of this age of communication is that this anxiety is the price of convenience” — theatlantic.com
The “always-on” state of mind leads to anxiety and depression
Technology has a tendency to put us on an always-on state of mind which can be disastrous for our stress levels. Researchers found that smartphone use was associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as an increased experience of stress. Heavy internet users for instance are 2.5 times more likely to be depressed.
Technology can be used to manipulate your emotions and trick you
Ever heard of Dark Patterns? These are “tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to” such as disguised ads, hidden costs or friendly spamming. You can find a complete list here.
AI surveillance and data privacy
Despite George Orwell’s warning that it could happen, technology is watching us and real-time tracking in the real world is happening. Amazon has been licensing a service to the Orlando police to detect faces in crowded photos recently. How can we make sure that this privacy-killing technology is only used for good? How does our legal system protect citizens against abuse?
… and that’s only the tip of the iceberg
These examples are only a few of many more. I haven’t mentioned fake news, the increase in loneliness, jealousy and fear due to a high usage of social media, or the fact that a third of the smartphone notifications we receive worsen our mood…
So, how can we better protect ourselves?
Designers have to take responsibility
We, as designers, along with product managers and developers, are the ones creating the interfaces that people use to communicate, to shop, to read and do any other kind of online activities today.
Tomorrow, we’ll be designing what users experience in the virtual world or how they interact with their connected homes and workplaces.
As technology is becoming more and more integrated in our everyday life, the importance of humanistic design increases every year. This puts us in a very special position to build new ethical frameworks and apply existing ones.
“Designers are at the forefront of these concerns, for it is the designer who translates ideas into reality. Today more than ever before, designers need to understand the social impact of their actions.”
— Don Norman, the design of future things.
7 design principles for more humanistic technology
1 — Technology should empower human capacities
My grandmother told me recently that she was afraid of technology because it pushes us away from using our brain and training our memory. It got me thinking about why we build technology in the first place.
Take automation as an example, to what extent do we really need it? We’re doing everything we can to automate every domestic task by building the smart home, but what about a home that makes people smart instead? A home that for instance supports education for kids and continuous learning for adults. We should design technology that amplifies the best in us.
“The problems that we face with technology are fundamental. They cannot be overcome by following old pathways. We need a calmer, more reliable, more humane approach. We need augmentation, not automation.“
— Don Norman, the design of future things
2 — Design should balance business value with user needs
Many designers can be in conflict with executive strategies when we understand that business goals are driven by short-term gains defined to please investors. Goals such as increasing monthly metrics like newsletter subscriptions or asking designers to increase the number of alerts and notifications to maximise user attention on a platform.
Designers have a responsibility to warn their business peers that such decisions can harm the user experience and are therefore negative both for the product development and digital wellbeing.
3 — Technology should be calm and non-intrusive
We need to tackle the anxiety issue. Designers can try to integrate computer systems in the everyday life in a far more natural and relaxed way than any ringtone or vibration. For instance, the concept of calm interfaces pushes for smoothly capturing a user’s attention only when necessary, while remaining in the background the rest of the time. Sometimes even, the best interface is no interface.
“The challenge is to add intelligent devices to our lives in a way that supports our activities, complements our skills, and adds to our pleasure, convenience, and accomplishments, but not to our stress” — Don Norman
4 — Design technology that requires the least possible amount of attention
I see a future with less interactions and more seamless experiences. Especially with the rise of the Internet of Things and connected objects, the challenge is to design invitations that lead the user through an interaction without being visually or audibly bombarded and to communicate information without taking people out of their tasks. Technology doesn’t always need to speak, you can create ambient awareness through different senses.
5 — Use data to improve the user experience, track and measure the impact of your design
One of the most powerful principles that we can follow is to measure the toxicity of our designs and set KPIs to limit it.
Look at Netflix: the company recently released figures about its user base, claiming that 8.4 million binge racers finish a new TV-show season in less than 24 hours. These are extreme users. Shouldn’t designers at Netflix warn them about the risks of binge watching? In extreme cases, shouldn’t they automatically stop user access after too-long a period of viewing? After all, a bartender will refuse to serve another drink to a client who’s already visibly drunk. Why doesn’t Netflix do the same?
Are extreme users spending far too much time on your app? Do customers spend money they don’t have? We need to start measuring not only the added value generated by our design, but also the potential harms and negative effects that they may be causing, and take reasonable actions accordingly.
6 — Design for inclusion
Technology doesn’t fit everyone’s needs and habits. Especially the elderly aren’t used to online services, which is why designers and tech makers should keep it in mind to avoid excluding a silent but nonetheless major part of the population.
Take banks: we’re closing down offices around the world, moving towards online banking and following the large wave of digitalisation. But isn’t online banking more confusing for the elderly in comparison with what they already know — going to their local banking office in town?
Inclusive design in tech means designing different versions of services tailored to different personas.
7 — Design meaning-driven innovation
Innovation is not self serving. Innovation is good when it solves a problem. To avoid building thousands of meaningless things, we can start by doing user research, building empathy with affected people and understand real industry-specific problems that are worth solving. I also wrote about the best way to ensure you design a product your users will need.
“I’m as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done. Innovation is saying no to a thousand things.” — Steve Jobs
As design and technology are coming more and more together, designers have a duty to critique and question it: how can we design ever more humanistic experiences with ever more complex technologies?
At the end of the day, designers need to challenge design. What tools and frameworks can we develop to help us craft experiences that respect digital wellbeing?
In my opinion, with the emergence of new technologies, a new designer needs to rise: knowledgeable about business, technology, and ethically responsible to be able to craft digital experiences that limit unhealthy habits.
One day, we might even need new regulations. The French government, for instance, recently passed a law that provides a “right to disconnect” from technology to tackle the modern-day scourge of compulsive out-of-hours email checking.
One of the biggest challenges of living in a society of mass technology is to make sure that current and future technology meet the needs of that society.
This is the reason why I write and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. We can also chat on Twitter.