Thinking Beyond Screens
In the attention economy, we’re all fighting for our users’ attention. Here’s how to avoid dark UX patterns and practice responsible digital design.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “time is money”. What a terrible economic principle. In fact, the more you rationalize it the more the logic crumbles. The stinging truth is we all have a finite amount of time, and where there is a depleting resource reverence should also dwell.
In the digital 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 what we’re really talking about is time. Specifically, competing for our users’ time. That’s the real backbone of the attention economy. However, this scarcity-model comes at the risk of our audiences’ wellbeing.
Enter design. I firmly believe that designers should start with the hard, foundational questions. What does good design have to say about honoring our users’ time? Furthermore, how are we using shortcuts to gain more of our audience’s valuable attention instead of respecting their humanity? It seems to require a more holistic view of considering a life beyond screens.
Let’s take a look at what responsible design has to say about this challenge.
Racing against the clock
Competition isn’t always a bad thing. 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 becomes other people’s time. Digital design can become less utilitarian and morph 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, seeing the competition for their users’ time as a valiant effort rather than a problem.
Likewise, engagement isn’t itself inherently malicious. There are many valuable ways to use our time online. The tension comes when users form expectations over the period they spend engaging with our products. And the ethical issue arises when a user comes to our product hoping to execute on a task quickly and are instead enticed into a mindless, addictive activity.
Identifying helpful boundaries
It is wise to consider both sides of the equation within this discussion. Since online users have the freedom to use and abuse the products they consume, it would be short-sighted to believe that only creators can influence meaningful change in the lives of their users. However, design also consciously and subconsciously forms and shapes patterns in the lives of those interacting with it. Let’s take a look at a couple common ways digital design can abuse the engagement of its participants:
Making things hard to find wastes people’s time. I like to think of it as the “Supermarket Effect,” in which retailers consistently move items around a store in order to force users to see everything. Creating consistent, parallel, and useful wayfinding will decrease the amount of time users waste just trying to find information.
In relattion to our tendency to overcomplicate, many products and platforms also create unnecessary funnels in their experiences. Allowing users to navigate directly to useful features while having the ability to bypass the greedy hurdles we place in their way is a great way to honor the time of participants.
Notifications and rewards are important to us. They often point us to helpful, timely information, but they are also the easiest way to commandeer the brain’s dopamine pathways with intermittent variable rewards. As Tristan Harris explains, “How do you keep people hooked? Turn yourself into a slot machine.”
Designing responsibly looks much like being aware of how users are actually using your products. What it doesn’t look like is further data-mining or manipulation of your user. Instead, try listening to real stories from your audiences. Once you’ve heard, collected, and analyzed those stories, taking ownership for your shortcomings and righting the ship is an opportunity we must all seize. Designers must learn to love refinement of the existing as much as creating something the new in order to shape behavior in a healthy way.
So, how do we rise to the occasion and seize an opportunity to build healthier communities online? Here’s a start:
- Time yourself: Set efficiency aside, make a list of actions you can perform routinely online and then time how long it takes to perform them. Take note of the really seamless activities and the ones riddled with distractions, hurdles, and plain old nonsense. Evaluate these findings and allow them to influence your next project.
- Collect stories: Reach out to real people in real places being impacted by your work. Schedule time to speak with them. Whether it’s an open call for feedback or an incentivised model, allow users to speak and critique freely. This will create a safe space for your team to ask hard questions and to listen. From this realtime, personal feedback you can form meaningful change.
- Evaluate messaging: Do an audit of the messaging your UX offers to its audience. Does it set accurate expectations of the time involved in the tasks it offers to users? Discuss with your team ways to continue refining the language you offer and test it with your users.
Thinking beyond screens
A better way is possible. It just takes more effort and won’t be as efficient. It may even cost you more money. However, it ultimately leads us to a healthier society of people who aren’t preyed upon by the media they consume or the experiences they find online. Responsible design teaches us that there are real people in real places in real time behind everything we create. Let’s strive to honor the time and attention of our users.