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Have you ever met up with friends you haven’t seen in a long time, and sat at a table with them, but everyone was looking at their phones instead of talking to each other? It sometimes feels like we’re more interested in seeing what’s happening on our smartphone screen than what’s going on in the lives of the people sitting next to us.
Some argue that in the age of technology, such behavior should be taken for granted. But the root of this behavior is not technology, but how we use it. The fundamental problem with modern product design is an over-focus on improving user engagement — so that’s what product creators should do and why it matters.
User attention is a valuable resource
User engagement is one of the key metrics in product design, as many products rely on ad-based revenue models to monetize their work. In this model, time spent on an app equals money—the more time users spend on an app, the more ads they see, and the more money the app creator can earn. But even for apps that don’t rely on an ad-based model, user engagement is critical, because the more time a user spends on an app, the better their chances of converting (i.e. buying a product, filling out a form, etc.). In other words, we live in a world where money goes where people spend their attention.
Related: Learn how product design affects every aspect of your company
Deliberately creating addictions to create better engagement
The race to gain more human attention is nothing new, and it started before digital products. First of all, this is the age of print media (newspapers and magazines). People typically read newspapers at certain times of the day (i.e. check the news before starting the day). Then came the age of television, where viewers could turn on the TV at any time of the day. But the age of television doesn’t give viewers much freedom to control what they want to watch — viewers have to check TV schedules to find out when their favorite shows are airing.
Finally, this is the age of the Internet. The Internet age has given users superpowers to decide when and how to consume content. The Internet is a highly competitive field, and product creators are actively looking for ways to incentivize users to consume the content they offer. A lot of times, they use techniques that keep the user in the app – and these techniques are very effective.
Using technologies like infinite scrolling feeds with personalized content can keep people spending countless hours in front of a screen. As a result, some people can put their phones down even while walking down the street. More recently, the specialized term “moving zombie” or “moving zombie” was coined to describe this dangerous behavior. People ignore what’s going on around them because they’re so keen to interact with their phones.
This manipulation also has a large negative impact on happiness.It turns out that the more content we consume on social media, the less happy we become. Not surprisingly, less than half of Gen Z were born in the internet age (mid to late 1990s) and report good mental health.
Related: When Your Product Design Makes Your Customers Smart
Digital design must change
Many people blame technology for what is happening in our society. But the technology itself is not bad. They are just tools that help us work more efficiently. The way product creators use technology makes them look bad. As long as we strive to build products that make people spend more time online, and measure design effectiveness in terms of average session time and daily or monthly active users, we’re doing a terrible thing.
Product creators should stop measuring app success by the amount of time people spend on an app and go back to the roots of digital design — humanizing technology. Human-friendly technology can help people work effectively without taking them away from the real world. Both big companies are interested in improving user well-being — Apple and Google — both trying to stem the overuse of smartphones. Apple provides users with weekly screen time reports to help them track their time on mobile devices, and Google offers Digital Wellbeing with the same idea. It’s a big step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. First, users are unlikely to set a time limit for the app themselves after viewing the report. Second, product creators are less likely to change their business practices to minimize engagement.
The only way tech giants can change the way their products are designed is to move from information to action and introduce policies to regulate how product creators should design their products. For example, any application submitted to Google Play or the AppStore can be checked for the use of addiction-causing mechanisms. Additionally, iOS and Android can measure the time users spend in apps and actively limit this time (also known as parental controls, but for parents). However, the decision will make the tech giants embrace these policies, which will not be easy as they need to apply the rules to their own products. But this is the only way to change the situation.