The Destruction of Attention: a UX design crisis…and how our voices may save us.

A young woman just drove into oncoming traffic while posting to Facebook killing 3, including herself. People are walking off cliffs face down in their phones….software-inspired distraction is a BIG fx!uck#ing problem.

As product designers, we are in an ethical nightmare…our metrics of success match far too closely with those of attention destruction and addiction in our users. Smartphones are making people dangerous. What are we going to do? Wait for the CDC to demand we label our product’s addictive qualities?

In this article, we’ll review how we know what we’re doing. And, then I’m going to present you with some bizarre enough solutions that you should be triggered into thinking of better ones :-) Then we’ll close-out with the RELIEF that voice-enabled ambient user experience design will give people their attention back…or at least their eyeballs and necks.

The Atlantic Article on Tristan and his solutions is also a must-read.

Brilliant, ethical, designer/thinker, Tristan Harris’ article “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds — from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist” is a must-read on the topic of how addicting our devices have become and how we must act. He presents a list of common heuristics to explain the attentional traps the apps people are so addicted to use. Like “FOMA” (the fear of missing out.) And, he begins to layout some solutions. I’m paraphrasing much of what he’s said, and adding my desperately optimistic take that there’s goodness to be sucked out of this addiction dilemma and how we must run into ambient user-experience design, embracing the Alexas and Cortanas in full.

We have mastered the ‘desired’ loop: TRIGGER + ROUTINE + REWARD
Nir Eyal and BJ Fogg may have been in pursuit of neutral behavior design definitions…but let’s refer to their frameworks as explanations to how we got so addicted to our phones. Nir’s appropriately named book, “Hooked” is hailed as the new bible of product design. And, it does a great job of describing the little dopamine hits we design in with features like social ‘like’. We are doing a great job of designing apps so that a part of our brain is left begging us to check the feed NOW. Habit loops. Behavior design is the most exciting frothy field that I can’t get enough of…but, right now, product people, we have to take responsibility for the effect on our society from designing addiction.


Can we use behavioral science to design in ATTENTION or at least giving back attention when not in use? Why yes, we can…and we must make it a variable in our product goals!

  1. Look for evidence on what helps people focus. Like Hiroshi Nittono and his colleagues at Hiroshima University in Japans work on the power of ADORABLE IMAGERY, aka “kawaii” triggering FOCUS and careful attention to tasks.

2. Clear Labels: Like Tristan’s buttons with time estimates.

Tristan Harris’ ballsy, blunt example of an ethical design choice

I grabbed the image at left from Tristan’s article…imagine interactions had to add a time clause. Upload photo = 20 min.(check 10x for like + what’s happening to ones short-term memory as it keeps this loop in mind….I like the metaphor of CPU space being used.) What do you think of Medium’s article read-time estimates?

Oh our poor hamster brains!

2. Graphically explicit device-based warnings.
I told you I’d throw down some bizarre ideas to trigger better ones in you. Waze warns you with a cute little text blurb to not drive while using…what if it showed you images of traffic fatalities instead? What if when you where walking and you tried to start interacting with your phone, it showed you distracted pedestrian outcomes?

3. Use the addiction to insert user-beneficial behavioral nudges.
OK, ok, this is my start-up, that can trigger users to put their phones down by inspiring them to go exercise or hug their kid. I started SmartSpark in a conscious effort to piggy-back goodness on top of the phone-check habit. We empower people to get self-determined visual behavioral nudges. And, it works — like strategic placement of products in grocery stores, the Sparks (video nudges) are placed on that thing you keep looking at (phone) to trigger you to work out, choose the healthier snack, etc. Hijacking the addiction cycle. A trojan horse of wellbeing. And, one day soon, the nudges will be more ambient and less ‘feed’ based. Which brings us to the VOICE solution.

Hijacking the addiction cycle for good

4. Let our voices free us

…if you’re hearing your email, your eyes are free to see the pot-hole before you step in it. Imagine smart clothes like a vest that had the ability to store up caressing ‘pokes’ from friends. Hehee…We must make ambient UX design so compelling that we blow-the-screen checks out of the water! Let’s get as much of our daily interactions into ambient user-experiences to give us our hands, eyes, necks and bodies back.

“IoT Could Mark The End Of Our Love Affair With Smartphones And Is Probably The Biggest Threat That Apple Faces Today.” — Nick Hunn

Design games where I play WITH my family in the same room with eye contact in the real world. Perhaps make our Roomba lead us on a treasure hunt. Leave the VR for when we’re alone or recovering.

Alexa, read me this article please….and, please prevent me from caring if anyone likes it. Oh, no, that’s not possible is it? But, may Alexa be smart and ethical enough to default alerts so they’re less of an attention hog. Too many alerts will make me turn you.

Thanks to behavioral economics we know the power of defaults.

5. Designing our brain helpers in the cloud

In the not-so-distant future as our devices read our moods, and AI and ambient triggers flourish we’ll have our attention quantified. We must build the interfaces so that people can see, hear, understand and self-determine their daily attention patterns. With all the love for AI rich bots, one of the first interfaces into our triggers seems likely to be in the form of a virtual life-coach/therapist owned by (x). We must design these little brains in the cloud to empower people to dial around their intakes so that they feel in control.