Friday, 16 June 2017

Is "addictive" app design ethical?

Many years ago I used to live with someone who commuted an hour longer than I did. This was way before smartphones, social media, or even cheap laptops. So I used to do the washing up as part of my evening ritual of winding down from work - luckily she was also as relaxed about leaving the washing up as I was.

Thinking back to this time the main method of communicating online was via forums around interests. So Eurogamer, Get Your Boot On, and North Stand Chat for example. Here the conversations are around topics. The nature of content on the sites is discoverable and predictable. I could easily see new information that I was interested in. I could also easily show someone else something interesting later.

Fast forward a decade with smartphones and pretty widespread internet connections I can get a notification ping up on my phone instantly alerting me that someone I know has posted something for the first time in a while. It will probably be a cup of coffee. Do I really need to be that connected?

Don't get me wrong, in my line of work at 15below creating alerts for people on the move, who need really timely information about their journey, can be the difference between missing or catching a flight. The ROI of the joy of making a flight you would otherwise have missed is hard to capture, but I'd certainly call it progress.

What I wonder about is the switch from the topic based forums I used to frequent, to people based "social networks" that are a virtual stream of consciousness. Sure they can be easily discoverable. They can put people in different countries who have never met in real friendships. However, they can also be unpredictable. Feeding that part of our lizard brain that feels rewards for novelty. 

The worst for this is LinkedIn. I almost feel like the second I see something I have to like it, read it or share it. Otherwise, I will never see that post again. This actually makes the experience stressful. If I see multiple items of interest when I open the app it's a race against time to complete them before I move on.

It's a similar story with Twitter or Facebook. Constantly refreshing or switching between searches to see what's "new". Sometimes I even fall into a zombie-like state, swiping and refreshing. When I stop I'm exhausted falling into a daze. This undoubtedly has an impact on real life relationships. With mental health. Is the disruptive nature of the curated timeline worth the ads it allows the platforms to push in our faces? Because social networks are becoming so interwoven into our lives that not being present there can be just as isolating.

My Sunday morning last weekend really brought it home to me. When I got up, instead of the usual coffee and social media routine, I did some housework. I unloaded the dishwasher. Washed up some fragile glasses. Put some washing on the line. When I had finished and sat down with my coffee, I felt much more awake. I was also more relaxed.

As product people do we have an ethical duty to consider the impact of our creations on people? I use the term "people" here deliberately rather than "users". This is probably an enabling term that allows us to distance our actions from the impact.

I will leave you with this thought from the Pope - and whether online or in real life keep your interactions meaningful.
Sorry for the rant. I know it's not overly original. But I feel it is important. We need to be more aware of the issues and avoid them.

Further reading

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