User Experience vs. The Human Experience
Smooth, Seamless, Intuitive, Ergonomic, Sleek: the gold standard of experience design in the digital age. As the mediums of interaction change, our behaviors change to mirror them. On a macro level, we know humans are changing, but in our personal lives, it’s hard to catalog the effects, much less the implications on our wellbeing. Intuitive is predictable. Sleek becomes slippery. Smooth lacks grit. There’s an ongoing conversation amongst UX designers about digital humanism but a scarce few brands actually implement it on a mass scale.
Somewhere between cheap thrills through instant dopamine, perfectly measured efficiency, and DMV-style tediousness lies a balance that will make you happier. This article is an exploration of that balance.
- THE DIGITAL GOLDFISH
Do you ever open Instagram and not know why?
If you stop and think about it, the buzzing of your phone is the technological manifestation of a nervous tick. An itch that is so meticulously crafted that even when it’s not pinging and prodding your attention will wander to it. We are in a symbiotic relationship with these amazing and aggravating little glass rectangles.
Which leads to a second, more important question: Does it make you feel good?
If you’ve been around marketing for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard this proverb: “The average consumer has a shorter attention span than a goldfish.” I’ve always wondered what that actually means. More than likely, this is just an interesting way to say, “make it short and make it good.” However, the fact that we’ve all nodded along to this comparison is more telling than the observation itself.
The optimists will likely say that it is simply humans adapting to a new digital way of living. To the realists, this must be the result of a fast nervous planet. The pessimists will argue that it was better in their day, when things actually meant something. The ever-so-clever cynics will grin at their Facebook Inc. stock and wonder how much more advertising an ADHD generation can consume. As for me, I’m left wondering how you can determine the attention span of a goldfish.
Goldfish aside, it feels as if we are moving incredibly fast. Ideas, content, conversations, and people are flickering past as we glide like a bullet train through our day-to-day. More people are texting and driving, flitting between web pages at work, and struggling to stay focused on this article. We’ve created a sea of digital information and the average person is alternating between skipping across the surface and frantically doggy paddling to stay afloat.
I do not know yet if this is a good or a bad thing for the human condition. But I can sense that The Great Acceleration is happening. You feel it. We all do.
2. THE AGE OF ANXIETY
anx·i·ety | \ aŋ-ˈzī-ə-tē \
Definition of anxiety
Medical : an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.
Anxiety has surpassed depression to become the most prevalent mental disorder in the United States. The interesting thing about anxiety is that it’s caused by both too much and too little. You can develop anxiety because you are paralyzed, like a deer in the headlights, by an upcoming work week. #SUNDAYSCARIES. You can develop anxiety because you are worried that you’re not doing anything with your life and that you’ll die meaningless and alone. #MEIRL. It’s rooted in anticipation. It’s a cognitive disconnect between what the ego decides should be happening and what is happening. It’s the feeling of the Sword of Damocles dangling above your head. Too much silence can be deafening.
We built this for ourselves. Mankind has painstakingly, over generations and millennia, tamed the world. As billions and billions of people trod towards the future we’ve flattened and polished the inefficiencies of life. In the digital era, this smoothening is the pinnacle of innovation. Everything has been crafted with efficiency and convenience in mind.
Everyone has their own custom-tailored bit of the internet. Your little slice remembers you, is molded to you, and tries its level best to deliver exactly what you want as you want it. We’ve built a world of our own design, and yet, we are uncomfortable in it.
Consider this: You’re bored on a Thursday afternoon. You don’t want to do work but you need to get something done. You click around a website and buy something you only sort of need. You are delivered a fleeting hit of dopamine. The website remembers you. You check out in one click. #SELFCARE. It’ll be here Friday. Easy, seamless and efficient give way to smooth and slippery. This is exactly what we’ve decided we wanted. You get a ping on your phone. Your package has shown up. TY Mr. Bezos.
You swear this used to make you happier.
3. OK ZOOMER
By now, you’re probably dreading the impending “if these kids would just get off their darn Instagrams, they’d just be able to focus on pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.”
For this first generation of digital natives, myself included, unplugging is no longer an option. The digital world and the physical one have melded into one existence and it is ridiculous to believe you can remove yourself from it. Humanity exists as much on the internet as we do in real life. Don’t believe me? Try to get a job, education, or house without creating a digital identity. If bootstraps still exist, they surely are made of ones and zeros.
So that leaves us stuck between two extreme schools of thought. On one hand, the good-ole days, where things were harder but simpler. You might have had to walk both ways uphill in the pouring rain to get a Coke, but by golly did it taste sweeter (it was the cane sugar). On the other hand, The Great Acceleration, where mass has become multi-niche, attention is currency, and culture moves at a mile a minute. It’s enough to make your head spin.
We’ve been so caught up in exploring how fast humans can go that we’ve forgotten that we have a breaking point. We’ve process-itized and optimized our human experience by designing for variables that don’t actually make human’s lives any better; only quicker. Leaving you with more and more time to stare at your reflection on the screen.
It’s not that we’re doomed. Perhaps digital innovation just needs to have a quarter life crisis. Remember; we’ve had to deal with widespread internet for all of 25 years. In human terms, it’s a recent grad still finding out what it wants to make out of itself. It just needs to wake up in the middle of the night sweating and wonder if anything it’s doing will actually make anyone happy.
We are facing a conflict between what we want and what we need. We want systems that reflect the potential of mankind. We build systems for our idealized version of ourselves: rational, productive, driven. These mythical “users” will interface perfectly with the mechanism and accomplish the goal as quickly as possible. And yet, humans aren’t just users, they are humans. We are imperfect creatures trying to build a perfect world and then wondering why we feel out of place in it. The digital natives designing our interactions aren’t just writing code, they are laying the building the architecture of a new human experience.
We are starting to get there. If Instagram is your social media garden perfectly groomed, Snapchat is playing with your dog in the mud. Snapchat was, at its core, unpolished, inefficient, and incredibly fun. There’s room for both refinement and eccentricity, but one makes better memories. Hinge made its name on a clever profile system that pushes you to buck up and actually go on some awkward first dates instead of just shopping for hot singles in your area. Hipcamp encourages city dwellers to get out of their comfort zones and explore. All of these companies have managed to build experiences with surprises, texture, a little bit of struggle, and ultimately meaning.
The next generation is on the way, nipping at the incumbents’ heels. With a little luck, and a lot of hard work, they are going to build digital analogs to the human experience. It’ll be amazing, revolutionary, and generate a ton of value for shareholders. All I’m asking is that they remember that we are not as fast and as smooth as the machines we create.