Designers, are you making people strong or weak?

Our lives are made up of a thousand daily choices, and the character of those choices is, in the end, who we become.

Some interface designs make it easy to think about who we want to be and how we want to live.

Diy.org. An empowering menu! Who do I want to be?

Others make it much harder to remember how we want to live.

Twitter Discover. Is the fact that this prawn was retweeted related in any way to how I want to spent the precious hours of my life?

When we aren’t thinking about how we wish to live, or about our own happiness, we chose from what’s easy or what’s in front of us. We can call this a consumer choice, and often these are choices we regret.

When can be explicit about what we are inviting into our lives (because the buttons are labeled accurately, for instance), we are more likely to be making a meaningful choice.

Another empowering choice

And social choices about affiliation are, in general, more likely to be meaningful choices. We recognize that who we hang out with is a way of shaping our lives, and this is especially clear when we have an idea of the group’s composition.

Meetup.com’s browse. An empowering menu.

Even just providing hints about the time required by an engagement changes the character of the user’s choice. A simple statistic like Time to Read can lead to a meaningful choice—and one we are less likely to regret—because of the way the choice itself has been reframed.

medium.com estimates time to read, instead of pretending you don’t have a life

If meaningful choices are better, why are there so many consumer choices on the web? Well, we’ve been trained to seek happiness by selecting goods, services, or experiences from a limited menu of buyable/consumable things.

wanelo.com is like pinterest for shopping! personal style can be a meaningful goal, but you wouldn’t know from this page

Let’s look a little closer at what these consumer choice menus are like:

facebook. these two articles could relate to the way I want to spend my life, but I wouldn’t know. All I know is that they are recent.

First, they involve a limited menu: these are choices from a list of options that are individualistically and passively framed. Lists of restaurants to go to, classes to take, movies to watch. To be a consumer choice, the options must be passive (not, e.g., restaurants to start, classes to teach, movies to make) and individual (not, e.g., friends which would be up for meeting at various restaurant or classes).

Secondly, they are organized by price, product characteristics, freshness, or trends.

It’s not a consumer menu if options—even passive options—are organized by why they might are important to us, i.e., so we can compare different options for adding adventure to our lives, or quality time with friends, or progressing towards our dreams. Only when options relate to our true desires does the act of choosing becomes meaningful.

fashionfinder.asos.com— a more empowering interface in which the user’s desire is reflected back to them

Being a consumer, then, means choosing from a particular kind of menu. A menu of passive, individualistically-framed options that are not organized so as to relate to our actual desires.

It’s not surprising that this doesn’t lead to happiness. It’s our relationships and active endeavors make us happy. So let’s make products without these menus. Let’s give users meaningful choices instead.


Here are four ideas about what better menus might be like.

  1. They respect the user’s need to preside over their lives, and they posit a reader with at least some vision of how they’d like their life to be, that evening or in the long run. They have room for broad desires and intent.
  2. Options are presented in a priority order to assist the user in living a satisfying life, not designed to manipulate the reader to purchase or to otherwise engage.
  3. Data is collected about whether the options presented are actually satisfying in the long run, and an attempt is made to include new options when they are not, and to allow the user to comparative shop on the axis that matters. For instance, Yelp might need to suggestions for cooking at home.
  4. Rather than isolate the user, options include group activities alongside solo activities. When possible, friends to join are auto-suggested.

For more on this topic, see http://nxhx.org.