Digital design ethics: from addictive design to humane design

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“The scarce resource of the 21th century will not be technology, it will be attention.” 

Do you have 5 minutes to read this? Can you easily focus on this article? Do you know that the average attention span for a person is 8 seconds? You’ll probably start to lose concentration in seconds. 

We are all surrounded by the internet of things. We start our days with checking our smartphones, or checking our heartbeat from our smartwatch. Continue with checking our emails on our desktop, or watching our favorite series on Netflix. The multi-screen era that we live in, forces us to be connected 24/7. Which means we are continuously open to be stimulated by notifications and new information. 

With rapidly growing technology, we are exposed to massive amounts of information and start to feel like drowning in a pool filled with information. Thus, digital product companies need to do something to shine out and draw more attention, because day by day attention and time become an increasingly scarce resource. The companies urgently need to take action to catch users’ eyes. Accordingly user experience and interface designers started to focus more on habit building tactics while designing a digital product. This is where things get a bit aggressive. Tech companies started to compete with each other, in terms of finding the best solution for hooking users into their platforms. By this way, we heard the term addictive design; the methods of building digital platforms that broadcast content aimed at maximizing the amount of time spent by the user on the digital platform. For instance autoplay the next episode feature on Netflix, recommendation mechanisms on Youtube, infinite scroll on Instagram, notifications on any platform.

Technology was supposed to aim at easing people’s life, however we started to notice red flags in user behaviors. The more designs focus on drawing attention and engagement, the more users become attached to digital platforms. In the not too distant past, technology pioneers emphasized the harmful effects of technology on not only humans, but also on the world during seminars in Silicon Valley. The topics were focusing on arguing about sustainability, and socio-psychological problems caused by the internet. On the one hand social media platforms are reshaping our behaviors and habits, on the other hand they led to new terms and new emotional diagnosis in psychology. Such as; addiction to gaming or fear of missing out. 

As a UX Designer, it is obvious for me that digital product designers need to take responsibility for designing more humane products that focus on users’ well being instead of exploiting people’s psychological vulnerabilities to hook them. 

7 Principles of Designing Humane Product

A UX Designer named Jon Yablonski started a project named Humane by Design that aims to provide guidance for designing ethically humane digital products through patterns focused on user well-being. In this work of Jon Yablonski, he explained 7 principles for designing ethically humane digital products;

1. Empowering - Empowering design ensures products center on the value they provide to people over the revenue it can generate.

2. Finite - Finite design maximizes the overall quality of time spent by bounding the experience and prioritizing meaningful and relevant content.

3. Inclusive - Inclusive design is a methodology that enables and draws on the full range of human diversity.

4. Resilient - Resilient design focuses on the well-being of the most vulnerable and anticipates the potential for abuse.

5. Respectful - Respectful design prioritizes people’s time, attention and overall digital well-being.

6. Thoughtful - Thoughtful design uses friction to prevent abuse, protect privacy, and steer people towards healthier digital habits.

7. Transparent - Transparent design is clear about intentions, honest in actions and free of dark patterns. 

Consider this writing as a calling for designers. It is time to become more conscious about design ethics, and make responsible choices in the practice of digital product design. As UX designers we have to start considering both the psychological and environmental impacts of our work. We need to shift our perspective of design methodologies, time plan, and road map to humane product design principles. Now is the time to create impact and start healing the broken pieces in humanity. Let’s design for social change.


About Pınar Demirkıran

Pursuing professional career as a Digital Experience Designer and Strategist, Pınar Demirkıran is an interdisciplinary thinker based in Istanbul. In the daytimes she works for translating customer needs into design outcomes, and in the evenings she does self-studies about digital humanities, behavioral sciences and digital well-being.