Our attention spans have become the backbone of an economy. Our gaze has never been more valuable. The designed world doesn’t stop simply at rewarding our attention; it demands it.
Design is founded in persuasion. Don’t add any subtext to that statement; its truth lies in its purest form. We are creating things that are engineered to persuade our users to go from point A to point B. Sometimes an easy sell, we start by convincing others that they should consciously choose to leave point A in order to get to point B. And we make thousands of decisions informed by designed, persuasive pathways every single day. Though we’ve gotten better at allowing our subconscious to handle these kinds of choices, these neural pathways compete for our limited attention on an infinite loop.
Persuasion in its essence isn’t an evil endeavor. Most often the reason we’re persuading users is that we believe that whatever lies on the other end of that choice will improve their lives. Persuasion is woven into the fabric of human connection. We are constantly persuaded by others to make informed decisions about how to live each day and how to fill our time. All the while, in the inverse of this is also true. We are constantly persuading others on how we think they should make their own decisions. We tread into dangerous waters when the attention we’re seeking from our users is commodified. The stinging truth is that we all have a finite amount of time. And where there is a depleting resource, reverence should also be present.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase “time is money.” What a terrible economic principle. It’s presented so matter-of-factly. But it’s just bad critical thinking. Pause. Think about it for a minute.
The more you rationalize it, the more the logic crumbles. Time represents a natural constant, a rule of nature tied to the celestial body we happen to be orbiting the solar system upon. Money however is a currency. It’s a denomination within a system that derives its power from shared meaning. Our concept of time doesn’t change nature’s measurement of time. We’ve all experienced time seeming to move faster or slower in our lives; however, our experience of time doesn’t change the length of a second. In contrast, the value we place on currency in our systems and societies absolutely affects not only its perceived value but also its market value. It’s dangerous when we start to conflate a law of nature that unites humans with a societal construct that can fiercely divide humans.
Words like engagement and attention are often thrown around without nuanced distinction. I’d argue that we’re really just talking about time. Specifically, our users’ time. That’s the real backbone of an attention economy. The reality that we all have a defined amount of time has been forced into a scarcity model. When we begin to sell the idea that time is an owned commodity that should be protected, rather than a shared resource we are all organically bound to, we put our audience’s wellbeing at great risk. There is great reverence in naming, acknowledging and respecting this constant in our lives and in the lives of others. Time is not a new commodity that must be hoarded and fiercely protected at all costs. No product is creating more time in your life. Products and media are simply presenting other ways to use the time you already have. It seems like such an obvious reality that we hardly think well about it. Marketing succeeds in selling a narrative of “having more time to ourselves,” because we haven’t stopped to think about whether the proposition even makes logical sense.
What is a limited resource is our attention. Attention is anatomically bound to our brains and neural networks. We’ve all bought the modern lie that multitasking is a skill we all should foster, yet it is something that our brains don’t do very well naturally. Focus is crucially important not only to our survival as mammals but also to creating meaning in our lives.
We can only pay attention to so much at one time. Howard Rheingold said it best in his book Virtual Community, “Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.” Unlike time, we do have the capacity of choosing what we pay attention to as long as we can think clearly. It’s when our judgment is abused and incentivized by addictive patterns that we lose the clarity required to fully appreciate the limited attention we possess.
What does good design have to say about honoring our users’ time and attention? When the time and attention of others devolve into a commodity, they become tied up in a fierce competition that leaves users in the crosshairs of economic interests. These competitive tactics can often look like using shortcuts to gain more of our audience’s valuable attention instead of respecting their humanity.
Using neurological advantages like creating more dopamine, which creates the experience of pleasure and gratification, in users through reward-motivated behavior is one example we all experience in many of the digital landscapes we navigate on a daily basis. When we expect something new like a notification, email, or reward, the anticipation is enough to allow for this neural release that generates euphoric pleasure. Brains can be hijacked by these engineered schemes without even consciously realizing the attention that has been spent searching for the next dopamine high or how much time has elapsed in that insatiable quest.
No one is exempt. Designers and humans alike find these manipulative patterns of holding the attention of others very seductive and easy to subconsciously gravitate toward. And so dark patterns form out of these good intentions. Many businesses, organizations, and brands truly believe they are worthy of users’ time and attention. And while they may be right, the tactics they employ to hold that attention matter tremendously.
Like persuasion, engagement itself is not inherently malicious. There are many valuable ways to use our time consuming media. However, ethical issues arise when people use our products with the hopes of executing tasks quickly and are instead enticed into a mindless, addictive activity. Many platforms we interact with first show us their idea of a good use of attention before allowing us the choice to select that path. Infinite scrolling is a wonderful example of this problem in the modern era. Endless content never allows the user the space to even decide to stop. When we begin to eliminate choice from our designed experiences, we begin to eliminate the freedom of our users. We’re effectively forcing people to stroll through the gift shop.
Designing responsibly requires a more holistic view that considers a life beyond the time spent with our media. Addicts are not free, so it is only by removing addictive hooks that we can create liberated users. The same users have rich lives apart from the content they consume.
Remembering our place
This discussion quickly becomes inseparable from our previous explorations into intent and integrity. We have to start with the basics by evaluating what we hope our design will achieve. Form adds flesh to the bone structure of function. Every design begins with the hope that people will do something. It is only by considering the value of users’ engagement that we can create something that honors our audience fully as humans. Efficiency alone can’t be our goal.
We all say we believe in the golden rule. (And if we don’t, perhaps we’ve failed the psychopath test.) We can even view it through a design lens: Design only the things you would want to consume. However, if we truly practiced the counter-cultural demands of the golden rule, we would have no dark patterns or endless cycles of manipulation infecting our discipline.
There’s a razor-thin line between persuasion and manipulation among our ethical standards as designers. What’s even more problematic is that this already thin line gets blurry when users can’t tell the difference between the two tactics. Habits can be really hard to break because we’re often not aware that they are forming in our consumption patterns. It helps to think about the media we’re creating in its proper place in the lives of our users. I view media as a tool that has a distinct purpose. Even if its purpose is for entertainment or immersion, there is a use nonetheless. I think it’s really important to remember that a user’s experience with your product is just one tiny aspect of their daily lives. Though that interaction may have tremendous implications to their livelihood, the time spent with the media itself is inconsequential when compared to many of the visceral aspects of our existence. Tangible experiences like the embrace of a friend, the feeling of genuine community, or an immersive encounter with nature will always supersede the time we spend with media.
It’s similar to peering at the stars through a telescope. The sheer size of our universe should humble us as we drift through the galaxy on this pale blue dot. This humility should be carried into our work. It requires us to think differently about how audiences engage with our work. It requires us to redefine what makes media successful.
If human history has taught us anything, it’s that the emergence of new technology rarely comes with lengthy discernment. It’s not in technology’s DNA to slow down. So we adopt these advancements and only ask where we’re going once we’re deep down in the cave running out of rope to lead us back. Engagement metrics are no different in this regard. Capturing data about how users interact with our products was once the white whale for marketers. The days of “If we only knew the numbers!” have passed. Now there are analytics for everything. However, what’s happened with this endless quantification hasn’t looked like wisdom. Rather, it’s looked like an obsession.
“If only we could get them to spend more time with our product” becomes the pipe-dream we fantasize about without ever asking why they need to spend more time with our products. What if our products are designed to work efficiently, engineered to be functional, and devised to be helpful?
“Wait a minute,” you may ask. “Wouldn’t that mean that they would spend less time with our media?”
It seems so simple it just might work. Yet, it feels like swimming upstream. We’ve created confusion with goals that do nothing but create mindless users. We aren’t honoring the fact that they may want to do something else with their time besides get hypnotized by endless content.
But therein lies the rub: Addictive behavior is better for the bottom line. Drug dealers have known this for centuries. Is this model good for humans? Of course not! Again, addicted people are not free. Causing users to be addicted to your platform may create a consistent revenue stream, but it will never contribute to humanity’s greater good.
Advocating for users
What should happen when you’re designing something that you know could negatively impact the mental health of your users? As designers, we must advocate for our users. It will take more effort. It won’t be as efficient. It may even cost us more money. However, it could lead to a healthier society of people who aren’t preyed upon by the media they consume. Let’s strive to foster communities of engaged users — not hopeless addicts.