There's Been a Global Shift in Product Design — Here's Why It Matters
Modern product design is changing, so let's take a look at why it's important.
Have you been in a situation where you meet with your friends that you haven't seen for a while, sit together with them at the table, but instead of talking with each other, all of you are looking at your phones? Sometimes it feels like we are more interested in seeing what happens on the screen of our smartphone rather than what happens in the life of a person sitting next to us.
Some people believe that this behavior should be taken for granted in the age of technology. But the roots of this behavior aren't in technology but rather in how we use this technology. The fundamental problem of modern product design is too much focus on improving user engagement — so here's what product creators should do about it and why it matters.
User attention is a precious resource
User engagement is one of the critical metrics in product design because many products rely on an ad-based revenue model to monetize their work. In this model, time spent in an app equals money — the more time users spend in the app, the more ads they will see and the more money app creators can receive. But even for apps that don't rely on the ad-based model, user engagement is vital because the more users spend time in an app, the more chances they convert (i.e. buy a product, fill out a form, etc.). In other words, in the world we live in, where people spend their attention is where the money goes.
Intentional creation of addiction to create better engagement
The race to get more human attention isn't something new, and it started way before digital products. First, it was the era of printed media (newspapers and magazines). People typically read a newspaper during a particular part of the day (i.e. checking the news before starting a day). Then it was the era of television where viewers could turn on a TV at any moment of the day. But the TV era didn't give viewers much freedom to control the content they wanted to watch — a viewer had to check the TV schedule to understand when their favorite TV show would be broadcasted.
And, finally, it's the era of the internet. The internet era gave users a superpower to decide when and how they want to consume content. The internet is a highly competitive field, and product creators actively search for ways to motivate users to consume the content they offer. Quite often, they use techniques that keep users in the app — and those techniques are really effective.
The techniques like using an infinite scrolling feed with personalized content can make people spend countless hours in front of the screens. As a result, some people can get off their phones even when they walk in the street. Recently, the special term "mobile zombie" or "mobi zombie" was coined to describe this dangerous behavior. People ignore everything that happens near them because they are so engaged in interacting with their phones.
This manipulation also has a substantial negative effect on wellbeing. It's proven that the more content we consume on social media, the less happy we become. Not surprisingly, less than half of Gen Zers, born in the age of the internet (mid to late 1990s), report good mental health.
Digital design has to change
A lot of people blame technology for what's happening in our society. But technologies aren't bad per se; they are just tools that help us work more effectively. The way product creators use technologies is what makes them look bad. As long as we strive to build products that make people spend more time online and measure design effectiveness in average session time and daily or monthly active users, we do a terrible thing.
Product creators should stop measuring apps' success in the number of hours people spend in apps and get back to digital design roots — making technology humane. Humane technology helps people work effectively but doesn't take them from the real world. Two large corporations are interested in improving user wellbeing — Apple and Google — both try to discourage smartphone overuse. Apple provides users with a weekly screen time report that helps them keep track of their time on mobile devices, while Google offers digital well-being with the same idea. That's a good step in the right direction, but it's not enough. First, users are unlikely to set self-imposed time limits for apps after watching the report. Second, product creators are unlikely to change their business behavior to minimize engagement.
The only way for tech giants to change how products are designed is to move from information to action and introduce policies that will govern how product creators should design their products. For example, any app submitted to Google Play or AppStore can be checked if it uses mechanisms that cause addiction. Also, iOS and Android can measure how much time users spend in the app and proactively limit this time (a.k.a. parental control, but for parents). However, this decision will make tech giants accept those policies, which is not easy since they need to apply the rules to their own products. But it's the only way the situation can change.
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