The ethics of engagement — Should we be designing less engaging experiences?

Photo by Marc Smith

Hi. My name is Neil, and I’m an addict. I’ll admit it, I’m addicted to technology, and you know what given that you’re reading this article, I suspect that you are too.

I’m addicted to my smartphone. I’m addicted to my iPad. I’m addicted to my laptop computer and my smart TV. I’m addicted to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, BBC News and the million and one other websites and apps that I use on a daily basis. I’m addicted to the little thrill I get when I see that a new email has arrived in my inbox. I’m addicted to the satisfaction I receive when someone comments on a Facebook post I made, or retweets something I posted on Twitter. I’m addicted to the little beeps, buzzes and pings that let me know that something new and exciting has arrived for my attention. Any of that sound familiar?

We’re all addicts now aren’t we? We’ve all become addicted to a very modern drug called technology. Tell me that you also don’t crave quality time with your beloved digital devices? Tell me that you also don’t feel a pang of panic when you realise you can’t get any mobile or Wi-Fi signal. Of course there are still some people that cling on to the old ways. That steadfastly refuse to join our new digital revolution. But don’t worry. These people will either see the error of their ways (this is progress right?) or be unceremoniously swept to the sidelines as more and more of us spend an increasing amount of time interacting with machines, rather than with people.

And you know what, it’s not our fault that we’re addicted to technology. We’re only human after all. Please don’t blame a husband for staring into his mobile phone, rather than in to the eyes of his beloved wife. Please don’t blame a mother for playing with her iPad, rather than with her children or a school child for paying attention to his smart phone, rather than his teacher. You see technology is too damn addictive. And why is it so damn addictive? Because it’s been designed to be so. It’s been designed to engage, to demand our attention, to draw us in and to slowly but surely get us addicted. And speaking as a user experience (UX) designer I can’t help but feel a little bit guilty about this because as a UX designer it’s my job to help create engaging user experiences that users will want to return to time and time again. I’m not just a UX designer, I’m also a drug dealer, and my drug of choice is called engaging experiences.

Now don’t get me wrong. Engagement is a wonderful thing. A dis-engaged world would be a very dull and life less place, but like beer, chocolate and videos of people falling over in a comedy fashion, engaging experiences should be consumed in moderation. Too much of a good thing is ironically rarely good for us. An engaged customer might be great for business, but I wonder is it so great for that customer? Should we be continually striving for more engaging experiences? Should we be trying to make our websites and apps even stickier? Should we be continually craving more customer attention and engagement like a long lost forgotten toy? Please play with me. Please. Come on, you’ve not played with me for at least 15 minutes.

Of course we could peddle the same arguments that the gambling industry use to justify our quest to design ever more engaging experiences. We just give people something that they ask for. It’s not our fault that they become addicted. Besides, if we didn’t give them their fix, they’d only find it elsewhere. Sorry, but this doesn’t wash for the gambling industry, and it doesn’t wash here. Freedom of choice is all well and good but when technology and many of the digital services that we use have been carefully designed to induce addictive behaviour (Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram et al — I’m looking at you) suddenly choice does not look so free anymore.

It would help of course if we as consumers were prepared to pay for our engaging digital experiences rather than expecting everything for free. When was the last time you paid for an app or software? Of course we’ll pay for physical technology, things don’t get manufactured for free you know, but software and online services — Nah, no chance. As the old saying goes there’s no such thing as a free lunch, ultimately the money has to come from somewhere and that somewhere is invariably advertising (even if like Spotify’s case it’s advertising for the paid for service). A revenue stream that is dependent on advertising is always going to encourage the design of addictive products and services. More use of a product or service = more eyeballs on adverts = more revenue. Will this change as the Apples and Googles of the world make it harder and harder for advertisers to reach us? I don’t know. But I do know that once you’ve let the cat out of the bag, it’s very hard to get it back in again. Consumer now expect something for nothing, and it will be very hard to change that expectation.

Perhaps I’m being too idealistic but should we not be focusing on making a positive impact on peoples’ lives, rather than chasing KPIs such as frequency of use and duration of use? Dare I say, should we be designing less engaging experiences rather than more? Rather than trying to snare users and keep them in our net, should we not let them swim in, do what it is they need to do and then leave as soon as possible? Is it time for a more considered, a more responsible attitude towards designing engaging experiences? Is it time to think about not just what is best for business, but also what is best for users, and even for society as a whole. The parent in me says an unequivocal ‘yes’, the designer in me still isn’t so sure.

I want to leave you with a thought from Jonathon Harris and Greg Hochmuth the two artists and engineers behind Network Effect — an equally bonkers and brilliant exploration of the psychological effect of Internet use on humanity. Interestingly the site limits users to a number of minutes use per day (worked out from the average life expectancy in the user’s country — 80 years in my case for the UK, which equates to 8:00 minutes use of the site per day) which is of course a rather heavy handed, but effective way to limit the level of engagement.

The Internet is a miraculous tool, but all too often, it affects us like a drug. Many of its popular apps, news websites, and social networks have been carefully designed to addict and distract, so they can harvest human attention like the natural resource it is. “Keep searching and you will discover,” these services seem to proclaim, but the deepest truths cannot be found by searching — and you will not find them in data, in videos, or in images of other people’s lives. We need time and space and silence to remember who we are, who we once were, and who we can become. There is a way, and every one of us contains the potential to find it.

Now put down your mobile. Switch off your tablet computer. Walk away from your laptop and have a little technology de-tox. For a little while at least stop engaging with technology (I realise the irony that you’re reading this message by directly engaging with a digital device) and take a little time out to find your time and space and silence and to maybe even engage with some of your fellow human beings.

If you like this article then you can find lots more on my blog: UX for the Masses

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