We all started on our paths to becoming product designers by wanting to create platforms people wanted to use. None of us dreamt of one day designing platforms that tricked users into using them, did we?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rise in technology since the internet has been matched by the rise in people suffering from anxiety. We’re chasing numbers, likes, affirmation — and we designers are exploiting that. But why? Maybe because in the real world of business, where everyone has to answer to someone, we designers are chasing numbers too (active users, conversions), likes (reviews), and affirmation (career progression, pay rises?).
“In order to get the next round of funding, in order to get your stock price up, the amount of time that people spend on your app has to go up. So, when you put that much pressure on that one number, you’re going to start trying to invent new ways of getting people to stay hooked.”
Pagination stops any platform having to load all relevant data at once, which aids loading speeds. It’s also a behaviour we were used to from the non-digital age, when we get to the end of a page or chapter we have to turn the page (you can see where the term pagination came from). But imagine if there were no page breaks or chapters. There would be no natural pause, when would you stop and take a break?
Former Mozilla designer, Aza Raskin, designed the infinite scroll in 2006 whilst working for Humanized. Infinite scroll allows the user to continuously swipe down through content, but crucially only loading content on-demand, so as not to have to load all content at once. There are no page breaks, no natural pauses. Infinite scroll kept users looking at their phones far longer than necessary, but it’s become a normal behaviour now.
“If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, you just keep scrolling”.
Aza stated that many designers were being pressured into creating addictive app features by the business models of the big companies that employed them.
YouTube and Netflix know exactly how to keep us hooked. Once we’ve watched what we wanted to see, there’s a countdown timer until we’re automatically shown something we ‘might also be interest in’. The platform’s engagement metrics go up the more we watch, but it’s a bit of an artificial metric isn’t it? Are we really engaged if we’re passively watching what we didn’t choose to watch?
75% of Netflix viewing decisions are from product recommendations.
Likes, thumbs up, hearts or whatever form it takes, have become one of the most addictive aspects of social media. It provides us validation on the content we post, and our popularity.
The co-inventor of Facebook’s like feature, Leah Pearlman, has said she had become hooked on social media because she began basing her sense of self-worth on the number of likes she had.
“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, was all about: how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”
Sean Parker, founding member of Facebook
Products that practice unethical design patterns, and focus on metrics over real user experience may prosper in the short term, but things are changing.
Ind.ie (now Small Technology Foundation) is a not-for-profit organisation striving for social justice in the digital age. They defined an “Ethical Hierarchy of Needs” that describe the core of ethical design.
Each layer in the pyramid is reliant on those that form the foundations below it. For example, if a design does not support human rights how can it possibly be ethical?
So in practice, a product that exploits user data, uses dark patterns, or that is only out to make money, is forgetting its human purpose, and is therefore unethical.
Technology that respects human rights is decentralised, peer-to-peer, zero-knowledge, end-to-end encrypted, free and open source, interoperable, accessible, and sustainable.
It respects and protects your civil liberties, reduces inequality, and benefits democracy.
Technology that respects human effort is functional, convenient, and reliable.
It is thoughtful and accommodating; not arrogant or demanding. It understands that you might be distracted or differently-abled. It respects the limited time you have on this planet.
Technology that respects human experience is beautiful, magical, and delightful.
It just works. It’s intuitive. It’s invisible. It recedes into the background of your life. It gives you joy. It empowers you with superpowers. It puts a smile on your face and makes your life better.