The Future of Digital Product Design is About Human Empowerment

On breaking our codependent relationship with our technology.

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 where they are the victim — shaming us because we haven’t given them enough — and we are the rescuer, always willing to give a little more.

They need our data, and our files, and our photos, and our posts, and our friends, and our cars, and our houses. They need every second of our attention.

We are willing to give because they are useful. We’ve actually gotten really good at creating useful products. We’ve perfected design processes that allow us to improve the way people accomplish tasks. We’re experts at delivering utility. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more clear that utility alone isn’t enough. Quite often, our interactions with these useful products leave us feeling depressed, diminished and frustrated.

What we want is to feel empowered by technology, but we’ve forgotten that utility does not equal empowerment.

Empowerment is the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.

This is not our current paradigm. Today, the digital products we use demand so much of us, and intrude so deeply into our daily existence that they undermine our confidence and make it harder and harder for us to control our lives. Our data and activity are mined and used with no compensation or transparency. Our focus is crippled by constant notifications. Our choices are actively reduced by algorithms that decide what we should see. In the worst of it, we can’t even set our devices down because we’ve lost our ability to resist them.

We brush this off because we’ve confused the sense of utility for the feeling of empowerment. We assure ourselves that we’re owning our life when we get a great deal on a place to stay or get the latest update from a friend, or discover a great article, or get our groceries delivered without leaving the house. The reality is that we’re actually accepting utility in exchange for disempowerment.

We’ve been on this trajectory for a while. For decades, companies have taken increasing license to insert themselves into our lives. This trend has hit a crescendo in the last ten years driven by a combination of proximity and data availability.

Everything we do on the web is trackable. The level of data granularity available to companies today was unfathomable before the internet. Even in the early years of the web, companies were beginning to leverage these new found insights to target us and drive their business. But, back then there was still a degree of separation. We just weren’t on our computers that much. Then the smartphone came along.

Smartphones created a previously unimaginable level of proximity between customers and companies. This new, ever-present connection in our pocket drove a dramatic increase in the amount of time we spent online, and suddenly companies could reach us directly any time, anywhere. Couple this new proximity with growing mountains of data, and the separation between our life and the companies who want to influence it disappeared. This is an unsustainable relationship, and it is not the future.

Our model of value is to design for utility, believing that by delivering usefulness our customers will absolve us of the things we do in the name it. That 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 to be empowered. We want technology to enhance our capabilities and increase our sense of agency, without dictating the rhythm of our lives.

This is the task for the next wave of digital products and it will require a complete shift in the way we think about design.

For starters, we need to be willing to break the existing mold. Business success breeds emulation. When one company develops a winning strategy everyone follows suit. We’ve created a set of best practices for online success that are based on extraction and exploitation, and we’ve applied them with cookie-cutter precision across industries. Though we preach user-centered design, at the core, our products often center the value we get from the user over the value we deliver.

There are a few key things we need to rethink:

  1. How we view the role of our users in the life cycle of our products. If the value of your product is predicated on the activity or resources of your users then they are not your customers, they are your business partners.
  2. Our approach to data collection, manipulation, and transparency. We need to center the user as the owner of their data, not the business.
  3. Our drive for continual engagement from our users. Intentionally hijacking human psychology in order to hook people is a predatory business practice. We need ethical standards for how we manipulate people’s behavior.
  4. Our revenue models. Business models dependent on the level of user engagement are unsustainable.
  5. The way we compensate content creators. A platform alone should not profit from the creations of its users.
  6. How we implement and deploy algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI). We need ethical standards for how we manipulate what a person sees.
  7. How we view the role of our products in the lives of our users. Our products are not the center of a person’s life, they are only a small part of it.

Evolving our thinking in each of these areas will be a big step forward, but just modifying our existing thought process isn’t the complete answer. We also need to break our obsession with screen-based solutions.

Screens are not going away, but, over the past few decades, they have become our default. If there is a problem to be solved, we’ll design an app for that. Our obsession has fueled an entire industry of UX design boot camps created just to crank out app designers. Screens are our hammer and we have tricked ourselves into believing that all problems are nails.

Screens are easy. We’ve got it so dialed in that most apps basically look the same at this point. It’s become the path of least resistance. But screens beget much of the problems we find with our current model of digital product design. They require attentive processing, meaning our brain must be fully engaged. By nature, they demand our attention. They lend themselves to business metrics like minutes viewed, dwell time, page views and read time. They put us in a mindset of continual engagement as the definition of success. Screens also enable vast data collection and the problems that stem from it.

As long as we primarily design our solutions around technology that fundamentally demands our attention, it will be nearly impossible to break out of our paradigm of disempowering products. There are so many more creative and powerful ways we can use the capabilities of the web, but our screen blindness often keeps us from even considering them. We need to think differently about the way we solve problems and the way we leverage our technological building blocks.

Some may point to Augmented Reality (AR) as the next phase, but while AR may feel transformative and whiz-bang, it’s really just the same screen, different location. It’s the next step in the race to see how close our notifications can get to our actual eyeballs.

Empowering products are things that enhance our capabilities and our sense of agency, without disrupting the rhythm of our lives. That is not AR.

The car is a great example of an empowering product. It is a dramatic enhancement to our ability to travel and we have agency (outside of some basic safety rules) to use it as we see fit. It works with the rhythm of our life instead of disrupting it. Our car is there when we need it, and invisible when we don’t.

This needs to be our new design mantra — there when you need it, invisible when you don’t. Instead of — there when you need it, incessantly begging you to come back when you don’t.

In his book Enchanted Objects, David Rose of MIT proposes the concept of glanceable technology. This is digital technology that delivers value without demanding our constant attention. Rose’s most basic example is a web-enabled umbrella whose handle glows blue when it is going to rain, so you remember to take it with you. That’s it. There when you need it, invisible when you don’t. A common device made magic with some basic web intelligence. Simple and powerful.

Another example of this concept is a wallet that gets harder to open the closer you get to your budget limit. Contrast that with a flood of “high spending” notifications on your phone and in your email from services like Mint.

Or what about an alarm clock that changes color based on the predicted temperature for the day, so you know how to dress without opening an app. Or a watch that knows how heavy traffic is and vibrates to let you know when you need to leave to make it to an appointment on time. Or a piece of luggage with a handle that glows to notify you if your flight is delayed. Each of these solutions enhances our ability to make decisions and manage our lives without disrupting or dictating our actions. They leverage the power of the web to deliver utility plus the agency for us to use it as we see fit, and they only scratch the surface of what’s possible if we think beyond the screen.

Some of these solutions might be coupled with an app of some kind, but even if that’s the case, they move us away from the screen as our primary entry point. We put space between ourselves and our needy friend demanding more of our time.

This is the future we should be striving toward. The intelligence of the web delivered discreetly within the rhythm of our lives. There when we need it, invisible when we don’t. Utility and empowerment.

And this isn’t just about smart objects. There is a coming time where we are going shove AI into every random thing we can find in the world. “Smarts” do not equal empowerment, in the same way that utility does not. Empowerment comes through execution.

If I can text my refrigerator from the store and ask it if we have milk before I buy more, that gives me more agency to manage my life. But if that refrigerator also tracks my eating habits and funnels them back to Amazon so they can sell it to my insurance company, or spam my phone with “there’s a special on Double Stuffed Oreos” notifications, then we’re right back where we started.

We never wanted to be shackled to our technology. It’s not the future we told ourselves about. How many of our stories from the past depicted a future where we all had our heads buried in screens? Not a lot. And for those stories that did, I’d wager they were of the dystopian variety.

We want to be empowered by technology. We want to see our possibilities expanded, not diminished. We want it to feel like magic, not like a burden. We can build the future we want. Technology is not something that happens to us, it is something we choose to create. For the next wave of products we design, let’s choose utility and empowerment.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by + 372,020 people.

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