Against Engagement

I’ve grown weary of building digital products that capture people’s attention. The word “engagement” gets tossed around lightly. It’s assumed to be a positive goal; an engaging digital product is something teams should strive to build. Coworkers have shared the book Hooked by Nir Eyal with me and we’ve discussed Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness in an effort to tap into behavioral economics and clinch the market, innovate, and develop addictive designs that increase traffic. While these books have been helpful for understanding the power of design to affect our behavior, they’ve left me with a sinking feeling of guilt. We should focus on meaningful products rather than engaging ones.

One of the best books I’ve read that addresses this problem is Jorge Arango’s Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places. In his chapter on engagement, Arango articulates the link between building a product for engagement and seizing a user’s attention. He pieces together how media and publishing bear responsibility for the monetization of attention using the historical example of The Sun that capitalized on a fake story in order to sell more newspapers. Arango writes:

“Sensational content produced sensational results: The Sun soon became very popular, and advertising became established as an effective means for generating revenue by bringing awareness of products and services to potential customers. In a newly industrialized world, which produced a surplus of goods, the ability to harvest attention to create demand became essential.” (Arnago, 55)

He reminds readers that this is not a phenomenon of the past. Our modern information environments present similar pitfalls. Arango warns:

“When we enter an information environment with the expectation that we’re there to participate in a community, and the business model that supports that place seeks to maximize our engagement, our goals and those of the people who manage the environments are working at odds with each other.” (Arnago, 57)

How do designers avoid building products that take advantage of users in a world that pressures them to make everything engaging? As a designer, PM, or engineer, it’s crucial we ensure our products are not only engaging but meaningful, too.

WHAT TO DO

Here are just three (of many) ways designers can make products mean more than a push notification or a transactional email.

  1. Build for Offline: Before there was data to measure how users behaved, many decisions were made based on instinct. Today, it’s almost required that every decision is backed by data. Building for engagement means measuring every aspect of user behavior. Teams have become obsessed metrics that show a direct interaction between the consumer and products. Focusing on a north star number reduces the need for product teams to understand how an app actually affects users when they are offline. Considering the things we can never measure (like how users think or feel about something when they aren’t using it) can help us create long-lasting experiences. The forest app is a great example of an app that incentivizes offline experience. In this app, a tree is planted and grows larger the more a user stays away. How does your product reward users who take time away from what you have to offer? Do you incentivize the amount of time or space a user takes offline?
  2. Add Friction: This might seem counter-intuitive since there’s been so much work done to reduce friction in design. There’s a reason people measure how many clicks it takes for a user to complete a task. Even the emphasis on increasing page performance attempts to make digital experiences more immediate (and essentially unconscious). People are obsessed with reducing friction. Slowing experiences down with intention and adding deliberate requests for user action at critical moments in a user flow makes for better experiences in the long run. Bring a level of consciousness to your designs and address the pressures you may have to reduce friction at all costs. If adding an additional click means giving users more freedom, go with the extra clicks. This level of awareness in your design enables users to make conscious choices about when, where and how to engage with your products, rather than acting on autopilot.
  3. Prioritize User Control: Weigh a user’s explicit requests over their passive behaviors. Many algorithms try to personalize experiences based on behaviors rather than taking a person’s word for how they want to experience something. Give people the power to override themselves by providing escape routes to personalization. Let people dictate how they experience your product. iOS’s new screen time control is a perfect example of giving power back to users in a way that is flexible and ultimately meaningful.

Next time you find yourself unconsciously engaged with a digital product, ask yourself how much more meaningful the experience would be if you felt you had made an active choice to use it. Designing for meaning rather than engagement requires self-awareness and intention (as well as sacrificing some north star metrics).