The greatest time in Digital Design is NOW. We’ve got a problem of our own making to solve.

Dan Moran
Dan Moran
Feb 16, 2017 · 8 min read

Not since Web 1.0 has digital been on such a frontier. Web 2.0 evolved things. The mobile phone & social both changed things. These all added perceived value to our lives and has come at the human cost of constant interruption and a devalued reality. New tech can help solve this.

Web is mature now after 20 or so years. Mobile is outgrowing its form factor and is saturated with millions of apps, of which only a few are used. Social platforms are going through puberty with issues such as fake news, advertising saturation, echo chambers and new chat-based services all biting at their heels.

Digital has us saturated with interfaces, services and experiences. Full of things we didn’t know we needed and all promising to manage some micro-aspect of our day. As we see these tech and services maturing and normalising, so our relationship with them is being re-examined. We all know the effect of social networks and their desire to keep us hooked at the expense of the real world. How many people do you see in public spaces glued to a mobile screen favouring the social interactions on a screen over public ones? Or favouring the alternative reality of google maps ignoring street signage and landmarks to orientate ourselves. There’s a whole political slant here on digital vs. non-digital folk (I’ll save that for another day though).

Depending on the demographic, mobile users are checking their device between 30 and 150 times a day. That would suggest to me an intrusive technology. Is that interruption adding value to the day? Or to a life? And at what cost?

I myself have fallen victim to this, fewer people can read for long periods, concentration is down and anxiety is up. I have to block URLS with apps like selfcontrol on the mac or Forest on the iPhone to stop my nervous status check ‘tic’. I’ve deleted Facebook from my phone in an effort to cut down the constant checking. Several times. I’m ashamed to say it, but my 5 year old son scolds me for checking it when I’m with him. I’ve got a bunch of other examples where this mobile addiction has been placed in the way of real people connections. I‘m sure if you remember a time pre-mobile and pre-social, you’ll have a few too. If mobile is all you’ve known, I’d love to hear of your experiences in the comments.

We are soaking in digital excrement right now, at the expense of real human to human connections. Feels like tech is quite literally in the way right now, don’t you think?

There’s good news though.

We are approaching what I like to call ‘Peak UI’ (User Interface). Much like peak oil, our use of UI in its current incarnation of screens buttons, sliders and text input etc. will at some point in the near future start to decline, not through consumption of a natural resource, but the advancement of several technologies that will reduce reliance on screen based interactions in order to complete tasks that demand your full attention.

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Hardware advances like faster processors and larger memory are facilitating more powerful code, like AI and blockchain. Interface technology is improving and taking us back to instinctive human interactions that don’t require a touch based interface. Think voice control, gestures and facial/voice recognition, all different aspects of AI .

That’s not to say there won’t be a place for traditional UI - there will - but, crucially, there will be less of it. New tech always gets superseded but unique use cases remain. People still use them, just with less ubiquity. I could place a bet that half of you reading this have never used a fax machine but people still do actually use them. Some people will only ever buy paperbacks, not everyone uses e-readers. Each new product type invented adds a value and facilitates a need, often that you didn’t know you needed. Like having 1000’s of songs in your pocket instead of an entire vinyl collection in your living room. Vinyl is still in use (and ipods are too, just about!) My point is this; we invent something and it takes about 20 years to mature, then tails off when something else arrives, but its still there. Mobile and web are peaking, the original digital disruptors are being about to get disrupted.

One of my favourite design mantras …‘technology is at its best when it gets out the way’. Unlike this clip from around 2006 digging at Blackberry, fast forward ten years and it seems quite typical of everyday life now!

AI, machine learning, and improved natural human interface methods gives us a chance to fix this growing problem of screen addiction though every aspect of our lives.

Right now, I’m loving Apples earbud thingies. I wish they’d brought those out instead of their watch so we could be on generation 2 now. Tapping and getting siri without grabbing screen time removes the distraction and takes the interaction back to human level; talking and listening. Activities we as humans instinctively do and can multitask while doing (well, women at least), like walking and talking in the street. People don’t need any more apps to check, they need less diversion and more concentration.

These AI’s can give you directions, weather, and updates tied into your appointments and interests. Today, Nest control learns about your behaviour and adjusts to your environment. Tomorrow, your AI will regulate your digital interactions based on your real world behaviour, so when you are with your kid your mobile phone twitch doesn’t get in the way of your quality time. It will also be smart enough to know when you have some down time or are about to switch tasks. It can update you on the menial tasks it’s completed for you so you are less distracted and more present in your every day. In short, AIs will wean us of our ‘mobile device as crutch’ and make it possible to accept an awkward silence in the real world again, without diving to the sanctuary of your twitter feed or searching through youtube to show a cat dancing with a baboon. If AIs don’t help us escape our bubble and get back to reality some more, the Roman Empire’s fate awaits us.

Another development I’ve been noticing is the rise of the monthly bill payment. Everyone is doing it with everything from leasing cars, mobile phones, tv content, music library and even your delivery of purchases. software is in on the act too, Microsoft word is £7.99 a month. We forget to use this stuff yet funds disappear from your account every month. The nominal fee outweighs the effort to cancel a service. How many of these do we really use?

A nice piece of nudge theory and behavioural economics in action, these stealth revenue models are less painful for the end user, each one is only a few dollars/quid, so no big deal, right? They remove the requirement for advertising models to support the product or services used. Think Netflix, Spotify, Apple music and the like… so much more frictionless, but you still got different interfaces for all these apps and services, the friction has just been moved into one place, your mobile device. Oh yes, and also your tablet, laptop and TV.

I’d love to see the extension of this model to include more micro interactions for customers. It works for online advertisers so why not? Super micro payments for using services and goods rather than using ads to pay the way. Facebook has famously stated that it would always be free. How many of us would pay nominal amounts at an interaction level to not have to see clickbait in your feeds? Revenue models should be around utility to the customer and based on user behaviour, location and interests, not eyeball time, and click throughs. That way, people will pay for what they use, not what they might use and then get better deals when they use services more.

Combining the AI with improved human nature interactions and with frictionless payments mean, finally, that we can get rid of the chronic advertising exposure, the incessant checking of multiple apps and social networks and the remembering of multiple passwords. It means we can get back to picking up our phones maybe only a few times a day.

Let’s get back to technology augmenting and adding value to our life. As Designers, Product Owners and Technologists we have a responsibility to make lives better and always strive for a higher purpose in what we do. We have done so at a micro level for the specific apps and services we work on for banks, retailers social networks etc, but all this comes at the expense of the macro, the cumulative effect of the micro. We expect everyone to interact now with their phone instead of with real people, for everything.

While at University, I was taught the principle of built-in obsolescence (where things get built to last just beyond warranty period so people have to keep on buying a new one). I remember the entire class coming out of that lecture looking shell-shocked and sick to the stomach. We thought we were there to improve things through design, not make things worse.

I feel just as shell-shocked that these useful devices and services are having a negative impact on our lives and that of our children. I’m with Simon Sineck, but it’s not just social media that is the culprit, it’s every app and service that buzzes at you and demands your attention.

Now is the greatest time for Human Centred Design methods and it’s also the most challenging. Let’s rise to the challenge before the tech runs away with itself (quite literally).

I love making these digital apps and services and the value they create for people. But let’s acknowledge the problems we have created and reduce the slavery to our mobile devices. Let’s use technology with a dash of common sense to empower ourselves and reduce real world impacts of that empowerment. You can’t stop progress, but we can surely shape it.

About the author: I’m Dan Moran. I grew up with my computer scientist dad’s mainframe in the home office, and BBC model B hooked up to the TV from my mother’s college during the summer holidays. Hated school, loved Product Design, graduating in 95 at the point of all things digital exploding. I’ve been riding the digital wave ever since with a Human Centred Design mindset. I’ve just relocated from London to Vancouver.

Dan Moran

Written by

Dan Moran

Dan is an exemplary Dreamer and a Doer that puts people first. Human Centred Design Lead.

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