A new angle to UX: creating peaceful experiences

Where we’ve come from: selfish to other’s-centric

The web has grown up a lot. Like a baby it has grown from learning to grasp the first few words (of HTML) to, a few years later, toddling with newfound legs (Javascript). I think we’ve finally passed that awkward moment of running gleefully butt-naked with nappy in hand (the insecurity of Flash-ing everyone)!

With this growing collection of tools, though, we saw every problem through that lens. When we wanted a website we only looked at the tools we had and the functions we wanted. It was a selfish time and it produced very poor experiences.

Enter Steve Jobs and Apple. They pulled us into line and taught us the importance of a good user experience (UX). The web grew into the teenage years and we thought we knew everything.

Web gurus like to think we’ve evolved from the bad old days of design with UX. After all, we’re putting others needs first ahead of our need, following that golden rule:

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Bible)

Yes, I believe UX is successful because it’s built on a solid foundation of sacrificial love. But we haven’t figured it all out yet.

Where we are today: teenage know-it-all rebellion

We’re still hating, hurling scorn, and remaining ignorant of most information out there. More to the point, we are carelessly creating apps that encourage us in our teenage rebellion.

Has the Internet really brought us closer? It seems to encourage bad habits. So we make friends with people all over the world, but we blast them as soon as they say something wrong. There’s a space to “continue the conversation”, but it’s used to spew hate. There’s a way to connect to long-lost friends and family, but then if you ‘like’ opposing content, you’ll never get to see their posts.

Breaking the peace

Twitter is a perfect example of how a great platform becomes a poor experience when we don’t attend to abuse, bullying and other antisocial behaviour. For me, I think of this area as a “peace-breaking” problem.

People who break the peace are those who bully, intimidate or fight disrespectfully. We often have controls over this such as content filtering, user moderation controls (down-votes; reporting), and sign-up controls. They are only mildly effective, though.

Faking the peace

But the civility problem has another side. I call it “peace-faking”.

This is one of Facebook’s tactics, where it divides people into echo chambers based on similar likes. So if you like one side of politics, Facebook won’t give you stories that are from the another side. Seemingly it’s so you’re not offended, and so you don’t offend others. (I’m offended they don’t want to offend me!)

But grouping similar people together doesn’t create peace, it only mimics peace. Creativity, innovation and problem solving thrive with multiple viewpoints that are respected and understood, but Facebook strangles points of difference. Your own views dominate your top stories.

We do this in other contexts all the time: “Birds of a feather flock together” is the timeless observation. We see people group over personality, and divide over personality clashes. People band together who have similar interests or political or religious beliefs. Managers and often pitted against workers. Designers against developers. Old against young. Yet we now know multidisciplinary groups offer the best design thinking, so much so new schools are forming around it.

David Kelley, founder of IDEO, global design company and Stanford d.school, says of ‘design thinking’:

“Design has an inherently individual bias, it’s like an individual sport; [but] design thinking is definitely a team sport. … 100 percent”
Interviewer: And multidisciplinary? “100 percent”

Consider a website just built from the business’ perspective, rather than considering the user. We know it’s going to suck from the outset. ‘I want the site in Flash, with purple neon glows, and snowing’ was the business owner of 2005, but they haven’t changed. It’s now ‘I want the site in React, with parallax and I want to be able to control it via a voice-assistant’. In our open-plan offices.

Ironically, peace doesn’t equal a lack of friction. A grain of sand helps produce a pearl in the same way a person playing ‘devil’s advocate’ is designed to spur better design and decisions.

A beautiful pearl is created through a foreign object entering the clam

So if our app forces only one type of thinking, it creates a fake peace. And a fake peace is no peace. It’s like knowing our political system is stuffed, but not being able to do anything about it. It builds a mountain of frustration and breeds anger against the system.

Where we want to be

We can’t build apps any longer that just passively expect that bringing people together therefore equals peace, love and happiness. Today’s applications need to consider how to actively move us towards each other — towards friendships, or at least respect.

This requires peace-making experience design, a new aspect to the wider user experience design.

Make peace

We can say two people are “at peace” when, despite differences, they respect each other without aggression or ignoring the other.

Without peace-breaking or peace-faking. You hear a weirdo out and they become interesting. A controlling manager sits down with his worker, and becomes a respected manager.

So when we “make” peace, a big part of it is recognising differences and fostering understanding.

Making peace is not equal to reducing aggression

We’ve tried in the past to reduce hate by focusing on key words like swearing and moderation controls like removing spam-like posts, automatic or manual. This is focussing on aggressive behaviour — peace-breaking behaviour. It does help to remove a bully. But the environment that helped produce that behaviour is still there.

Making peace is not equal to distancing people

Offline, when forced to be in a situation with people who we don’t like, like family or work situations, we might apply the rule “don’t talk about politics or religion in polite company”.

This is a classic peace-faking rule.

Important subjects simply don’t get discussed — and no one benefits from this lack of deeper discussion. We all hate superficiality (at least, in my bubble, my friends do!).

As I said before, this only breeds a bottled-up frustration and anger.

Making peace is about building bridges and understanding

To make peace, we’re going to have to create applications that build bridges and understanding between each other.

We can’t force people to get along, but at the very least you can respect your opposition through learning to appreciate where they are coming from.

At best, we can build new bridges, forge strong friendships, create innovative businesses, and (anyone else have other clichés?).

Creating peace is like working to get a stranger to buy something off you. It can take a lot of work to get them from being skeptical to trusting you.

Understand conflict

We need to first understand conflict — the problem — before we can locate the best solution.

Conflict starts with differences. Differences of opinion, desires, needs, beliefs, thoughts, and so on.

But it’s how we respond to differences that matter. We don’t have to take offence at someone who says wrong, or someone who doesn’t like your work. Psychologists tell us we each respond based on how assertive we are (below, vertical axis) and how relationally concerned we are (horizontal axis). I researched and drew this out a few years back:

The different ways we respond to conflict

The red examples are your typical peace-breaking behaviours. Fighting, gossip, slander.

The blue dotted lines are your typical peace-faking behaviours. Running away and ignoring real issues.

The green bridges are just some examples of peace-making. Having that conversation you need to have. Humbly giving someone else a role you both wanted.

Notice that any difference you come across does not have to end in conflict. You could be a rhino and go the “my way or the highway” route, destroying bridges. Instead, you could respond by analysing the different views before you. You would then use your assertiveness to choose the route the data shows is best, rather than what you think is best.

Many act like a deer, who typically run away — or even explode on the inside and go down the depressed route. Instead, sometimes a little time off can be helpful — to think, write, draw, and then regroup to resolve the issue.

We can be a deer one day, and an elephant the next — but that takes practice. Normally we are naturally one type, and then have to work really hard to play the other roles (but that’s how we grow).

But lots of our apps today actually help push us to make the wrong responses to conflict.

Enter Twitter.

Twitter often ends in shouting matches. Why? Because conflict most often arises when one person doesn’t understand the other. Twitter prevents people from writing much. So, you drop the context, an explanation, and of course the tone is already gone. Bam! You’ve got a recipe for misinterpretation.

Twitter actually maximises conflict because it provides:

  • Little if any context
  • Little if any nuance
  • Little if any tonal references
  • Little if any supporting evidences or reasons
  • Little if any personal connection
  • Little if any identification or validation
  • Little if any reward for a thoughtful response

All of these areas are critical to get right and reduce conflict, though. That’s because, in practice, about 80% of conflict fades away when you understand each other better.

So how might we encourage peace online?

Without detail, I just want to provide some starting points for discussion.

We could help to provide contextual clues (who? what? where? why? when? how?) to information. This may reduce gossip and slander which is often a (low-assertive) response to misinterpreted data.

We could help to add nuance through non-linear conversations. These are cyclical or holistic conversations (a multidisciplinary approach is a part of getting a more holistic view).

We could add tone by allowing emoticons and micro-videos or animated GIFs. This humanises the conversation, reducing violent tendencies. It also adds context.

We could help people pause and think by allowing others to tag our comments with logical fallacies and requests for evidence or clarification, similar to Wikipedia.

We could increase relational concern by connecting people with smaller interest groups or friends rather than the entire public.

Being anonymous seems to reduce relational concern and increase the violent form of highly assertive behaviour. We could start new people off with very limited reach or functionality. Then, you’re allowed to do more once you’re verified, or earn reputation (Stack Overflow does some of this).

We could reward thoughtful responses by allowing mindmaps and flow charts that emphasise and summarise what’s been said. People tend to hate long articles, particularly in chat, but they love visual representations of it.

I’ll give some more detailed practical examples in a later article, but we need to get the problem right first. Let me know in the comments or claps if you think I’m onto something.

Recapping, my main point is: to improve users’ experiences we need to actively encourage peace, rather than just bring people together, or remove people who disagree.

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