The digital world, as we’ve designed it, is draining us. The products and services we use are like needy friends: desperate and demanding. Yet we can’t step away. We’re in a codependent relationship. Our products never seem to have enough, and we’re always willing to give a little more. They need our data, files, photos, posts, friends, cars, and houses. They need every second of our attention.
We’re willing to give these things to our digital products because the products themselves are so useful. Product designers are experts at delivering utility. They’ve perfected design processes that allow them to improve the way people accomplish tasks. Unfortunately, it’s becoming increasingly clear that utility alone isn’t enough.
Quite often, our interactions with these useful products leave us feeling depressed, diminished, and frustrated.
We want to feel empowered by technology, and we’ve forgotten that utility does not equal empowerment.
Empowerment means becoming more confident, especially in controlling our own lives and asserting our rights. That is not technology’s current paradigm. Instead, digital products demand so much of us and intrude so deeply into our daily existence that they undermine our confidence and control. Our data and activity are mined and used with no compensation or transparency. Our focus is crippled by constant notifications. Our choices are reduced by algorithms that dictate what we see. We can’t even set our devices down because we’ve lost our ability to resist them.
In the early years of the web… there was still a degree of separation. We just weren’t on our computers that much. Then the smartphone came along.
We brush this off because we’ve confused a sense of utility with a feeling of empowerment. We assure ourselves that we own our lives when we land a great deal on a place to stay, catch the latest update from a friend, discover a great article, or have our groceries delivered. These are just a few of the small moments of pure utility that we’ve learned to confuse with power over our own lives.
We’ve been on this trajectory for a while. For decades, companies have taken increased license to insert themselves into our lives. Driven by a combination of proximity and data availability, this trend has reached a crescendo in the last decade.
Everything we do on the web now is trackable. Before the internet, this level of data granularity was unfathomable. In the web’s early years, companies began to leverage user insights to target ads and drive their businesses. For a brief time, we had a degree of separation because we just weren’t on our computers very much. Then the smartphone came along.
Smartphones have created a once-unimaginable level of proximity between customers and companies. This ever-present connection has dramatically driven up our time spent online. Suddenly, companies can reach us directly anytime, anywhere. Couple that with the growing mountains of data, and the separation between our lives and companies that want to influence them has disappeared.
It’s an unsustainable relationship. It may look like the future, but it’s not.
Most companies’ current model of value is to design for utility, believing that customers will absolve them of any wrongs done in the name of it. This model is failing because it misses the bigger picture of what humans want from the technology they use.
Utility alone won’t assuage us. We want empowerment. We want to be better people. We want technology to enhance our capabilities and increase our sense of agency without dictating the rhythm of our lives.