Changing our Users’ Lives

As designers and developers we reach a lot of people in the work that we do everyday. With this reach we have a responsibility to the people using our products to help them make their lives better. Sometimes making our users’ lives better comes in the form of making them more productive, other times we have the opportunity to save our users’ lives.

Recently Instagram has had very large community of anorexia supporters forming on their service. Many people will post pictures of people who are close to starving with the idea that they are an inspiration, what the anorexic community calls a thinspiration (thinspo). People are sharing these pictures of unhealthy body types as a way of normalizing the unrealistic standards they are putting on themselves. On one person’s picture of their weight, they stated that they had lost 6 pounds in the past 4 days. 8 responses were asking the original poster how they did it! A couple people congratulated and one person asked if the person felt light headed, the original poster’s response was “wee bit”. The picture was tagged #ana #anorexia #bulimic #tofat #eatingdisorder #almost #100lbs. Instagram’s initial response was to try blocking the more obvious hashtags such as thinspo, and selfharm, but the users found ways around it by choosing different tags.

When most of us design we do not think about what kind of social impact our product will have on the world. We do not think we will have an opportunity to help someone with a serious life issue. Instagram never intended to become a place for users to celebrate self harm or eating disorders. The idea of people using our products for harm is horrifying, but Instagram took this as an opportunity to help the people suffering from disordered eating and depression, possibly saving lives. Any of us who builds a community of user made content has the possibility of helping someone in a life changing way.

As designers we should take a responsibility to help our users in any way we can. The things that we design can and do touch billions of people. We have a very strong affect on people whenever we design something (look at how facebook designers raise the blood pressure of millions of their users when they redesign!) We should take this affect that we have on people and use it to change their lives in a positive way. Our ability to help people grows with each new user that we gain. The affect we can have on people is immense.

Since Instagram was made aware of the anorexic community gathering on their service they have done a couple things to try to help these people. The first thing that they did is to update their community guidelines to further reflect their view on their community. Instagram paired their guideline changes with a blog post that states they want to help the people on their service get the help that they need.

“Like many other content-based community sites, Instagram has decided to take action to promote a positive and healthy community by creating a policy against content that actively promotes self-harm.” ( http://gre.gd/8 )

One of the easier things they have done is to ban some of the tags that people were using to share thinspiration pictures.

Banning tags ultimately becomes a game of cat and mouse. When one tag gets banned the community will find another tag to use. What Instagram has been doing to avoid this problem is for tags that they know are a little more obscure that the anorexic community has started using Instagram shows a warning of possible graphic content and gives a link to a website where people with eating disorders can go to get help.

This is my favorite way that Instagram tries to help the community. Leading the people in need to resources that can help them. One could argue that by allowing this community to have a place to discuss or share these photos Instagram is supporting the community and causing harm to the people who are participating in it. I think that by allowing the community to exist but guiding the people to resources will allow more people to choose the healthier decision. By banning all of the topics that people are using for thinspiration you could push these people to a service that may not care about their well being and will allow the community to flourish without any moderation or help. By allowing them to continue to discuss on your platform you are able to guide the discussion in a more constructive way.

In addition to showing this dialog on anorexia related tags they show it with suicide.

Google also does a wonderful job of helping their users with deeper issues. If you google suicide it will present you with a suicide hotline for your country. Again this is a way the designers have chosen to frame the discussion to help the user.

When most of us think about designing for our products we think about sign-up flow, click through rates, and making things as fast as possible for our users. As our communities grow we have the opportunity to think about ways we can literally save peoples lives. Creating a product that helps millions of people share photos or find a web page is nice, but helping a few people change/save their own lives is absolutely amazing!