Against designing for addiction

Whilst technology has expanded our lives in so many ways, most of us today share a collective addiction to our devices. In spite of our best efforts to reduce our dependency by deleting apps and putting our phones on 'do not disturb' mode, all too often we find ourselves back on our newsfeeds mindlessly refreshing to see what we missed.

Critics of the big technology companies have become increasingly vocal around the widespread product design practices of creating ‘compulsion loops’ to keep us glued to the screen. With tech being heralded as the new tobacco, how might we redirect design towards a more hopeful future?  

The attention economy

With its roots in counterculture and the hacker community, the birth of the internet of the dot-com era signaled the beginning of worldwide connectivity and individual freedom. Twenty-five years later, however, our relationship with technology has moved from freedom to addiction with internet usage disorders on the rise across the globe. Today’s digital design practices are built upon this dynamic with growth and usage numbers being the reigning metric of success.

From an innovation perspective, changing this dynamic is mission-critical. If innovation roadmaps continue built on this model of usage and growth, then the future will be nothing more than a replication of the present. With the CEO of Netflix – Reed Hasting – declaring that sleep is their biggest competitor, it is becoming increasingly clear that something needs to change.  

Designing for rest

Thankfully amongst this Wild West of competition for our attention, there are ideas surfacing on how to design for usefulness over usage. When it comes to our children’s internet usage, we are already seeing this with DR TV’s channel Ramasjang broadcasting sleeping cartoon characters by night to encourage young viewers to go back to sleep.  

For the older audiences, design studios such as Masamichi Souzou are beginning to create products with our mental wellbeing in mind. Programs such as support our need for rest by putting websites ‘to sleep’ at night. Recognising that the apparent ‘success’ of user experience can in time become a poison pill, studios such as these are helping companies take universal responsibility for our wellbeing through promoting rest.  

Creating ‘thick’ value

This ability to solve long-term needs over quick-fixes ultimately relies on our ability to broaden our lenses – and understand our users as humans above all else. As anthropologist Clifford Geertz coined the term ‘thick description’ to highlight the importance of context in people’s lives, technology companies should today really understand where they fit into people’s lives and how they create meaning beyond the posts, shares, and likes.