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Inside the Design Studio: the Ethics of Design DNA

Part one of a series

What is screen addiction, and how do you measure it?

The World Health Organization recently included gaming addiction in its International Classification of Diseases. Despite what worried parents might think however, not every screen-loving teen–or compulsive grown-up–falls into the danger zone. Diagnosis requires meeting some steep criteria–including twelve months or more of severe symptoms that affect work, social ties and wellness, a lack of control over gaming behaviors, and persistence of the behaviors in the face of negative consequences. And some mental health professionals argue digital dependencies stem from anxiety and depression, rather than cause them. At the very least however, the WHO recognition shines a spotlight on screen addiction as a real and growing concern.

The design dilemma

But designers have a financial imperative to get users to stick around. ‘Foster repeat engagement’ often serves as their governing metric. This can create a real strain between marching orders and ethical concerns. “If the driver behind acquisition/conversion is not an ethical one, it can lead to dark UX patterns,” warned Mitchell Hart, Beyond’s Director of Product Design. And, as Emma Netland–UX Designer at Beyond–explained, designers often use levers and techniques that may fall into the gray area. “There’s a set of ‘tricks’–like ‘hook models’ such as variable rewards — we can use to keep users checking and coming back.” Compounding the issue, Emma recounted studies showing human beings lack the ability to predict their own behavior, or even describe with accuracy how they’ve behaved in the past.

Co-crafting solutions

To navigate, Mitchell suggested taking a hard look at design DNA. “Are we tricking people into clicking, or staying longer than they intended? If so, it might be appropriate for designers to push back, to find a better way to marry the goals of the product with the intentions of the user.”



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