Engineering Ethics and Mobile Distraction

Like. Click. Watch. Comment. I just finished watching a video of a cat on a skateboard.. why did I turn my phone on again? Oh, right, I was going to save X’s address to my contac- oh, why is Y emailing me now, did I forget to sign something? Crap, I still haven’t emptied the dishwasher, let me make a remin-

This is my notification bar right now, as I start writing this:

How should I start my day?

Mobile devices have quickly become necessary to keep up with modern life. The original concept was noble — a tool meant to enhance our lives, provide functionality, information, and communication right when might need it most. With such an innovation, we could spend more time out in the world, doing things that mattered, instead of behind the screen.

Instead of offering quick access to the utility we want in the moment, however, our phones are now telling us what we should be paying attention to — they suck us in and demand our attention in order to maximize time on screen. Entire teams of engineers are being dedicated to features designed to do this; the more time you spend in an app, the more likely you are to see more ads. The more times Netflix convinces you to watch one more episode, the less likely you are to cancel your subscription at the end of the month.

I started doing mobile development four years ago because the potential that such a close, intimate device had to benefit someone’s life inspired me. I wanted to develop rich, functional, and effective applications, all packaged into a tiny icon that a user could be delighted with and use to simplify their life. The time my app saved them performing a particular task meant they could then spend that time doing the things they, as a unique individual, were especially good at. Effectively, I saw my job as a catalyst for others — software enabled me to make others more effective. If a doctor can order dish soap to their home instead of stopping by the store, maybe they can see one extra person in the day and, by extent, I was indirectly able to help the well-being of another; It’s unlikely I’ll ever be a doctor, but I can use my talents to empower those who are.

Every app I’ve worked on started greenfield with these altruistic motives. The product was undeniably useful and conceived by someone who saw the potential, as well as the surrounding pieces of the puzzle, such that they were able to envision what piece would perfectly fit next. After the first prototype, however, rumblings would start about a word I have quickly learned to hate — profitability. We’d continue development, quickly fleshing out the next round of features that would delight our users. The gains would be smaller, now that the core usecases had already been covered, but we also had the opportunity to dive deeper and tailor features to specific users and really get to the meat of the problem. We’d deliver the second release and be flooded with positive feedback and even more ideas for the next round of features. Ecstatic, we as engineers knew we were developing something of real value to real people.

It was always at this point we would then get requests to take our beautiful foundation and start tacking on neon billboards, plastering the walls with posters, and obnoxiously cat-calling our customers down dark alleys. Words like upsell, clickthrough, and conversion rate would drown out the original narrative until the creations I beamed with pride about rapidly transformed into garish monstrosities. Every time this happened, I lost a little piece of me, knowing that despite my motives, I just ended up bringing one more distraction into the world and robbing my customers of exactly what I originally intended to save them — time.

Sam Harris finally had a guest, Tristan Harris, on his podcast that made me realize I’m not alone in this struggle and has inspired me to take a stand. His non-profit, timewellspent.io, discusses design and research meant to align features with metrics more representative of actual value to the customer. I, for one, will be paying close attention to this space and I encourage other software engineers to as well. Just because our industry is too young to have a proper code of ethics doesn’t mean we should behave unethically. We are in a unique position to use our skills as leverage for our customers and it’s my belief that doing this will make your customers love you — a far greater reward in the long run.