There’s a fancy word that user experience researchers (UX) and designers use to describe the good parts of products they want us to use: affordance.
Here’s a more formal definition:
An affordance is a desirable property of a user interface — software which naturally leads people to take the correct steps to accomplish their goals.
We’re confronted with affordances in virtually every interaction we have with products: animations for when we ❤ a tweet, the cute icons we use to react on Facebook, the unlocking mechanism used by smartphones, etc.
Most of these affordances encourage us to use a product more by rewarding us with brief, pleasurable stimuli. We get in the habit of pulling, tapping, and swiping to feel good about things — we’re a little more up-to-date on our friend’s lives via a news feed, we see someone has liked a photo of ours, or we match with someone on a dating app.
Over time, our continued and habitual use of these affordances begins to mimic the experience of a lab rat: pull the lever for the treat.
Anyone who has had to sit through dinner with a partner checking their phone can acknowledge that these affordances don’t always contribute positively to our experience.
So what about affordances that encourage us to use less technology? Can we build our products with affordances whose goals are for us to be more present?
This idea may seem paradoxical, but I think there’s good evidence that products have already evolved Humane UX.
Apple’s Do Not Disturb mode on iOS is an example. It even allows us to schedule it – I have mine set from 1am to 10am.
Those aren’t the hours I’ll necessarily be asleep, they’re the hours I don’t want to be bothered with notifications. A couple of months ago I removed all chargers and screens (except for my Kindle) from my bedroom and it’s been revelatory. My bedroom feels peaceful now.
Slack also deserves credit for their DND mode which is superbly executed and operates across teams by default.
Apple’s Night Shift, inspired by f.lux is another evolution of Humane UX: it turns down the blue in our LCD screens at night which can contribute to eye strain and sleeplessness.
DND mode is such an obvious feature that it is easy to overlook its subversiveness as a product affordance: Apple and Slack acknowledge that we may not want to use their product all of the time. Other technology companies like Facebook would be thrilled if we used their product 24/7, and advertisers are following this trend: there’s now evidence that they’re targeting people using their phones in the middle of the night.
There’s a reason, of course – Facebook’s business model depends on our continuous engagement. The more time you spend with their app, the more likely you are to click on an ad. Apple and Slack aren’t worried about engagement in the same way: they make their money when you buy the phone or sign up.
We’ve just begun to think about Humane UX
In the future, apps or games could come preloaded with sensible defaults or reminders to take breaks — some console games are already doing this. It should be easy to configure how much of each app we use, and when it is available.
These kind of settings would be similar to iOS’s parental controls designed instead for you to manage your own habits.
Maybe you have a budget of 2 hours per-day of a game of Threes. Or maybe you can load a certain number of social media posts per hour.
Freedom is a great example of a service built to do exactly this for net connectivity – it easily blocks connections to sites like Twitter, Facebook, and whatever else you’d like.
I’ve been experimenting with Freedom and recommend giving it a try. I currently have it configured to block social apps from 9am to 1pm and again from 3pm to 6pm on weekdays. These times correlate to when I feel like I’m most productive. And when I’m not showing up at an office every day, it makes a huge difference when trying to find my flow.
But as great as Freedom is, it’s undeniably a kludge. As a 3rd party application it lacks the low-level operating system control over apps and permissions, making it difficult to regulate things like games you might play offline.
Furthermore, blocking app access feels like a blunt instrument: designers should be thinking of ways to make apps less invasive and more humane so that we don’t think about blocking them as our only solution.
So the real future of Humane UX is when operating system and app developers collaborate on APIs so that apps can intuit the appropriate amount of connectivity and technology we need.
Imagine if your apps could interpret your calendar and tune their notification settings for your schedule. Or if you could predicate app access on physical activity: walk 1 more mile to get 30 minutes of your favorite mind numbing game.
Operating System vendors like Apple, Google, and Microsoft should understand their point of leverage here – if they build the right hooks into their software they can encourage app developers to build more humane affordances. Or better yet, they could enforce it.
We shouldn’t trust platforms to help us find balance
While not everyone faces difficulty trying to find the right balance of technologically mediated connectivity, it is hard to imagine this getting any easier for future generations.
Compelling VR (subsidized by who else? Facebook!) will further compound the challenge: what if our virtual presence becomes better and more immersive than that of the real world?
Businesses like Facebook and Twitter are constitutionally opposed to helping us find the right balance: their goal is to remain essential in whatever way is most profitable to them, regardless of the costs to our day to day humanity.
Which isn’t to say they can’t contribute to our humanity occasionally — it’s just that their interests aren’t aligned with ours when saying “enough.”
So now seems like the right time to start thinking about how to defend our humanity from technology using technology.
Thanks to Glenn Otis Brown who discussed and read early versions of this essay with me.