A couple weeks ago I was discussing one of our projects with a fellow PM and he said something that got me thinking about the job we do for our clients and users. “As long as it puts butts in the seats” is what he told about a design feature compromising the experience while encouraging the attendance.
How come that is the ultimate goal? Are we struggling for vanity and overnight success or are we building a better world for our children one pixel at a time? And what happens if we design for the value instead of a habit? This idea has been following me since I became a loyal listener of Chris Odell’s podcast. Time and time again he’s been convincing me that ethics and good will are more important in the long run than the hype and the addiction.
With the amount of exposure a smaller but ethical company gets, it is fair to say it may never even approach the Facebook status but at the same time it will never fail so many people, it won’t be associated with evil, and it won’t compromise the entire industry. At the end of the day, how much money do you need and when does it become obnoxious?
“If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You’ll be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing, which is stupid.” – Alan Watts
The age-old agenda
If we accept the fact the money is the ultimate goal, what helps make that money? Any entrepreneur would say other money. In order to get the business going, you need some sort of an initial capital that might never bounce back to you. The higher the goal – the bigger the inventory.
The prefix ‘Big’ added to any industry changes the course of action for its further development and depending on the level of integration into our lives, the course of humanity. I’m talking about Big sugar, Big Tobacco, Big Pharma, and now, Big Internet. The internet, however, is different. It is a double-edged sword which superficial power is only a tip of the iceberg of the potential it hides.
Major corporations loaded with money and looking to establish even more dominance by means of their acknowledged practice of influencing research, always have their eye on marketing and upsales. This doesn’t mean there is some intentional evil. The specifics of academia made it possible for big companies to choose which research to stick to. As Gary Taubes puts it in The Case Against Sugar:
“What industry does is find people who already believe something that the industry finds convenient, and then they pay those people to make those beliefs known.” – Gary Taubes
You can genuinely believe some of the research and ethically, it’s not your fault if the concept is false. At the same time, being an investor of the orchestrated research puts you in cahoots with the creators of the fallacy.
Needless to say, all the tobacco and sugar cover-ups for the sake of sales are no longer a mystery. Whether it was a conspiracy or just the way business was being done back then, it does not dismiss the fact that millions of people’s lives might have been different had they not been subjected to the media influence and imposed a certain lifestyle.
With today’s exposure and because of the connection between people, it’s hard to pitch an idea that will be so overwhelmingly popular and omnipresent. It’s hard to silence the whistleblowers now. However, media giants still operate on the planetary scales with most of their users unaware of the hazards and data manipulation they voluntarily subject themselves to.
Designing for addiction
Design is the vehicle for any agenda. Everything has to be designed in order to become plausible. Nature itself uses design to propel its never-ending mechanism into the state of constant adaptation, evolution, and multiplication.
There is a reason why the flowers have a tempting flavour for the bees and the fruit are using zero camouflage. Nature designs them to be consumed. Nature makes us lose our minds and have insane crushes on people. That’s why procreation feels so good. That’s why there is the sense of satisfaction.
However, all that makes us human, can also harm us. There is a catch. Most herbs and trees have a natural protection mechanism going to prevent the animals from wiping them out completely. At high volumes of consumption, plants release a toxin that fucks with mammal’s system. So naturally, our bodies stop us from going overboard on a lot of things.
But what happens when we take upon ourselves some of nature’s jobs? We’ve learned to synthesize energy and no longer need the Sun to light our life. We’ve surrounded ourselves with plastic and ignore the signs of poisoning until it harms our own bodies. We’ve created artificial foods that are nothing but addiction with no trade-off. We’ve built the types of relationships with one another that go way past the Dunbar’s number of friends and expand our digital lives across the continents.
Every single thing produced by a human being is designed for something. But unlike nature, we design without the desire to sacrifice for a greater good. We serve short-term goals because our lives are short.
Every product designed for sale serves a purpose and while the designers are tuning down the purpose to the level of usability and appeal, they tend to ignore what the design does to the humanity on a greater scale.
Designers have learned a science of adding value to the things that might have none initially. A good example is currency bills. The most desired product in history is money. Even the plainest design of cash bills wouldn’t change our attitude to them, however, bank notes are one of the most challenging and prestigious things to design.
Modern paper money has to showcase usability, be accessible, maintain the nation’s pride and dignity all while being aesthetically attractive and sought after. The challenge for this type of design comes with the necessity of making cash bills universally addictive but with a great deal of protection and neutrality. There are a lot of things we can learn from money design psychology-wise and here’s a good piece to start.
The Bait & Switch
We’ve done a good job creating immersive digital space for ourselves. Can’t stop the progress so why not make it beautiful and convenient at least? Turning the internet-based products from one-hitter quitters to reusable products is one of the reasons we polish design.
A repeated experience is nothing else but a form of addiction.
When design received a steroid injection in behavior psychology, it opened the Pandora’s box of unseen opportunities ..and curses. We empowered design with economic sense behind every action. We turned utility and helpfulness into turnover where a user has to pay for the convenience.
The user pays with their money, attention, and addiction.
It became natural for users to give out their Facebook credentials to log in to some service they are in need of at the moment. So it’s a constant trade-off between receiving value and sacrificing some of your personal use.
Over time, the market became so saturated with products, that we developed a nose for quality. One of the pillars that sensation stands on remains the design. Product marketers have discovered new ways to sell things and it is “stop selling things”. Sell users experiences and better versions of themselves.
In a world where everybody has a voice and an online persona, it is inevitable that people started trying on different social roles, characters, and lives. Selling them the ability to do it seamlessly through products is the ultimate addiction-building strategy.
Through the constant search for delightful experiences, designers have mastered the art of seduction. The products they design are targeted differently but they all compel users to return to these products. At some point we return to them not because of the value, but because we don’t know better.
We’ve been buying into a beautiful design that makes us better versions of ourselves, that we stopped questioning what drives these technologies, who runs it, and how it actually works.
We’ve accepted solid and sealed products we can’t look into, cameras we can’t tell if they are recording, devices we can’t tell if they are really OFF, and made it completely normal to entrust our most intimate secrets and precious memories to the clouds of data controlled by someone we’ll never meet. This is addiction in its finest. The addiction we imposed on ourselves by allowing to be seduced. And this is where it gets tricky.
Good intentions gone bad
I’ve been spending my last five years working on digital product localization, product documentation, UX writing, and lately, microcopy. I’ve been deliberately using the best word combinations, expressions, and phrases to make my writing more than what it is.
From a purely descriptive function, I, with the help of marketing strategies and business goals, I pivoted my writing to seductive wording and it didn’t happen intentionally. In the process of fine-tuning my work, I sought for improvement in a presentation because that was the only impact I could make for a product. I believe the same applies to design.
While in the heart of a product lies an agenda with a fake research and purely monetary ambition, when a designer approaches the subject, they operate on a level of emotions and fairness.
Designers don’t consume the user’s attention. Design doesn’t sell itself and doesn’t generate revenue for display. But it definitely can be used for those purposes. Businessmen started using design to lure users in, seduce them with value, get them addicted, and from there on, lose no control over them.
In a lot of ways, UX becomes a way to reinvent the strategies of getting users hooked on the product or service which may or may not have a long-term value. The pressure designers are subjected to by the stakeholders and business execs comes from the fact that design alone doesn’t sell anything.
Design has to be supplemented with a variety of methods to create the dependence that will make a sell. Designers often have no options rather than to submit to those requirements and serve visual value covering up the filth.
The need to come to terms with your conscience comes up at some point after the design you’ve been involved into creates an uneven and unhealthy environment. Having helped a company create an addictive product, you automatically hold the responsibility for the outcomes and effects this product might have on REAL people.
Having seduced a user into a repetitive product usage by means of a designed value, the company is free to change the rules, push up the prices, or impose an agenda on users. I am being so dark on this only for the illustrative purpose. The reality is not so harsh and definitely, this is not yet another dystopian predicament. However, approaching from this angle puts it into a perspective that might save you some heartache.
Designing against addiction
All the techniques targeting customer attention, seduction, and addiction became the staple in product design. The explosive mix of cognitive science, behavior psychology, marketing, and UX design turned our lives into a product-driven sequence of transactions. That is not necessarily always bad though.
The convenience with which we can buy food and clothes, travel the world, communicate with our loved ones is immense. It comes at a price though.
The world became unforgiving. If you ever slip or let your guard down, the world will swallow you. Whether it’s sugar, tobacco, compulsive gambling, or meds, the addiction to good stuff works on the same terms as to the bad stuff. Like it or not but part of the responsibility for the destructive forces, we are helping design lies on us. If the product you make helps thousands of people but derails one, you’ll be stigmatized as a creator of the evil.
Over the years of the massive trade-off between technological functionality and humane attitude to consumers, we’ve developed a thick skin for the consequences of this game and the cost that it comes at. Something that otherwise would be considered dire is today treated like a side effect of the business. Yet, the awareness that the same robust functionality can be reached without the necessity to milk users for all they’re worth.
When every major technical frontier pretty much conquered in the realm of digital production and electronics, it’s time to swing the focus on the ethical aspect of design.
Designers are the only carriers of the humane values in the production process. When they stop paying attention to people and seize to advocate their universal safety, they become nothing more than a cog in a wheel of extraction.
I’m not here to judge or accuse, I don’t think there is supervillain guilty of messing up the most potent invention we’ve ever had. It feels logical to me that people succeed in what they are mostly rewarded for. The draconian laws of nature are unfair, however, there is no hypocrisy in the way nature regulates itself.
With the tools at our disposal, we can shift the focus of design from piling wealth to championing morality and universal values.
For the longest time, I had troubles grasping what those universal values mean, what morality and truth mean. If you do also, take time and listen to Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson talk on the Waking Up podcast.
With that said in a society hijacked by technology, you can’t just push a moral compass. The borders of what’s acceptable and unacceptable are blurred. It’s the companies’ judgment and stance towards the production that makes the difference. And this change is happening. More and more corporations recognize physical and mental health and wellness of their customers as an indispensable aspect. Even if it means smaller revenue and lesser market impact.
How design helps
Hate Evil, Love People. Designers rely on visual markers of their success. Whether those are likes, views, or clicks, they all represent approval. If these metrics come in numbers, the marker of success becomes binary: yes or no. Clicks. Conversion. This practice completely excludes conversation out of the design agenda.
Instead of fighting for what matters, we fight for the exposure. Like the healthcare industry profiting from diseases, incarceration complex benefiting from more crime, we can’t freedom from addiction to be sold for another addiction.
Equalize material and non-material value of whatever you design.
We’ve contributed to creating pretty damn lucrative but very unethical habits. Binge-watching and overwhelming social media are our social scourges. Instead of forcing users to stay in the loop by constantly pitching them neverending content, we should focus on empowering users with the ability to accomplish tasks. Instagram did that by introducing their “You’re All Caught Up” feature.
Let users decide for themselves if they want to be entertained. Don’t seduce them. Give them choices and don’t impose control.
Finally, you can’t buy karma by being ethical in one aspect and ignorant of the other. In order to pull the industry out of the addiction race, we need to create a safe and equal environment. That means shoving away the superficial hype, compromising values, and being always on the side of a user. Before we free liberate the users, we need to free ourselves from the fear of being misunderstood, disapproved, and frowned upon. If we design for the users and have them on our side, who can be against us?
Our goal has to reach further than extracting wealth from people. We should empower them to succeed in what they love doing. Ultimately, this is what people are willing to pay for.
We are not going to stop being on top of every new device produced. We will be downloading trending apps. We’ll keep playing Fortnite and binge-watching GoT. But if we start changing small, incrementally and honestly, perhaps the giants will adhere to the new reality and take it to another level so we could bump into a new imbalance and seek for a new way out.