We’re accepting utility in exchange for disempowerment. It’s not a fair trade.
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.
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 “utility” mold. As ever, when one company develops a winning strategy, everyone follows suit. Now that we’ve established a set of best practices based on extraction and exploitation, we’ve applied them with cookie-cutter precision across every industry. Companies preach user-centered design, but the products they create often center on the value they receive from the user rather than what they can deliver.
As digital product designers, here’s what we need to rethink:
- How users’ roles are viewed in the life cycle of products. If the value of a product is predicated on its users’ activity or resources, then those users are not customers, they are business partners.
- Data collection, manipulation, and transparency. We need to center the user — not the business — as the owner of their data.
- The drive for continual engagement. 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.
- Revenue models. Business models that depend on a given level of user engagement are unsustainable.
- How content creators are compensated. A platform alone should not profit from the creations of its users.
- Algorithms and artificial intelligence. We need ethical standards for how we manipulate what a person sees.
- 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 doing only that isn’t the complete answer. We also need to break our obsession with screen-based solutions. While screens are unlikely to ever go away completely, they’ve become a crutch — the path of least resistance. If there is a problem to be solved, product designers think all they have to do is create an app. Our obsession with designing for screens has fueled an entire industry of UX design boot camps that crank out app designers. We’ve tricked ourselves into believing all problems are nails and screens are the hammer. We’ve got it so dialed in at this point that most apps look the same.
Screens are easy.
They beget many of the digital product design problems described above. They require attentive processing, meaning our brains must be fully engaged to interact with them. By nature, they demand our attention — which is what encourages the collection of vast amounts of data — and lend themselves to business metrics like minutes viewed, dwell time, page views, and read time. Screens have convinced us that continual engagement is the definition of success.
We’ve never wanted to be shackled to technology. It’s not the future we promised ourselves.
As long as we continue to design solutions that demand all of our attention, it will be nearly impossible to break out of the “disempowering product” paradigm. Too often, our screen obsession keeps us from even considering the many other creative and powerful ways we could be using the web’s capabilities.
Some point to augmented reality as the next phase. While AR may feel transformative and whiz-bang, it’s really just the same screen in a different location. It’s the next step in the race to see how close our notifications can get to our actual eyeballs. It’s not empowering.
Empowering products enhance our capability and our sense of agency without disrupting the rhythm of our lives. The car is a great example. It’s 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 us. It listens to us. It doesn’t disrupt us. A car is there when we need it and invisible when we don’t.
This must be our new design mantra: There when you need it, invisible when you don’t. It would be much better than what we believe today: There when you need it, incessantly begging you to come back when you don’t.
Inhis book Enchanted Objects, product designer and entrepreneur David Rose of the MIT Media Lab proposes the concept of “glanceable technology”: products that deliver value without demanding constant attention. Rose’s most basic example is a web-enabled umbrella whose handle glows blue when it’s going to rain so you remember to take it with you. It’s a common device made magical with some basic web intelligence. It’s simple and powerful.
Consider another example: 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 lock screen and in your email from services like Mint. What about an alarm clock that changed color based on the predicted temperature for the day, so you knew how to dress without opening an app? Or a watch that monitors traffic patterns and vibrates to let you know when you need to leave to make it to an appointment on time. A piece of luggage with a handle that glows to notify you if your flight is delayed.
Each of these products would enhance our ability to make decisions and manage our lives without disrupting or dictating our actions. They would leverage the power of the web to deliver utility while offering us the agency to use them as we see fit.
There is so much depth beyond the screen. Some of the solutions described above might be coupled with an app, but even so, they move us away from screens as our primary entry points to technology. They would put a buffer between us and that needy friend demanding more of our time.
This is the future we should be building. It’s not just about “smart” objects. If we continue on our current path, we’ll eventually shove A.I. into every random thing we can find. Intelligence for its own sake does not equal empowerment — just as utility doesn’t. Empowerment comes through execution. If I can text my refrigerator from the store to ask if we have milk before I buy more, I have more agency to manage my life. But if that “smart” refrigerator also tracks my eating habits and funnels them to Amazon so it can spam my phone with “there’s a special on Double Stuf Oreos” notifications, then we’re right back where we started.
We’ve never wanted to be shackled to technology. It’s not the future we promised ourselves. Stories from our past don’t depict a future where we all have our heads buried in screens — unless those stories are of the dystopian variety.
We’ve always wanted tech to feel like magic, not a burden.
We can build the future we want. Technology is not something that happens to us; it’s something we choose to create. When we design the next wave of products, let’s choose to empower.