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How Our Tech Addiction–And Constant Distraction–Is A Solvable Design Problem

Stop blaming yourself for your inability to unplug. Today’s apps and devices are designed to seduce you. What if that could change?

How Our Tech Addiction–And Constant Distraction–Is A Solvable Design Problem
[Photo: Shutterstock]

We tend to blame ourselves for tech addiction–if we can’t help watching the next kitten video, or checking email 15 seconds after we last checked, it seems like a problem of willpower. But maybe we should stop blaming ourselves and blame our distraction on bad design.

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A movement called Time Well Spent argues that we should reconsider how we want to spend our days and start asking tech companies to redesign their products to support what we actually care about, rather than screen time. Considering that the average American now spends 11 hours a day looking at gadgets, this comes not a moment too soon.

The problem is that in an “attention economy,” the goal of almost every website or app is to do whatever is takes to keep you looking at it, in order to sell more ads. “Their aim is to maximize screentime,” says Tristan Harris, design ethics and product “philosopher” at Google and one of the leaders of Time Well Spent.

“They have to maximize it–by shareholder obligation, if their business is attention,” he says. Meditation apps, educational news sites, and Facebook, he says–“everyone is playing the same game.” (Google too, we should note).

Are we really clicking on a link because we want to or because it’s been designed to be irresistible? Most people don’t give this a lot of thought.

“Is where we spend our attention and time in a day reflective of what we care about?” Harris says. “Or is it reflective of the kinds of things that are more seductive at tapping into our psychological instincts–the websites that were better at keeping us scrolling, better at writing a clever headline?”

Though much of today’s digital world relies on your attention to survive, Harris sees a few ways to attack the problem. Designers could start with the home screen of a phone or a web browser–places that don’t rely on advertising or not as much.

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“Apple doesn’t need to maximize the amount of time you spend on the homescreen looking at stuff,” says Harris. “Because they sell you a phone, what they’re most concerned with is in two years you buy another phone.”

Chat or email could also be redesigned fairly easily to help people concentrate–without fully disconnecting and possibly missing something important, especially at work.

In one mockup, designers created a version of chat that lets someone set their status to “focused,” so if someone else pings them, they won’t see it until their period of focus is over (studies show that after an interruption, it takes 23 minutes to get back on task). But if it’s urgent, the second person still has an option to interrupt if needed. It’s shifting the design goal: Instead of trying to make it as easy as possible to talk to someone, it’s trying to help them work as optimally as possible.

For a website that currently relies on ads, Harris suggests that the business model could evolve. “I think up until now the debate about advertising has been about, okay, I’ll pay, and then suddenly I don’t see any ads,” he says. “That doesn’t feel like an interesting trade. If you think about what a person values, they don’t want pay $5 or whatever just to not have rectangles show up on a page.”

But someone might be interested in paying for a site that helps them spend their time differently. A cooking site, for example, might stop measuring page views and try to find a way to measure how much time someone spent in the kitchen cooking food that they ultimately enjoyed.

A few companies already have a similar model. Couchsurfing, a site that matches travelers up with a free place to crash–the ultra-low-budget version of Airbnb–doesn’t focus on how many people use the site or make bookings. Instead, they measure how travelers and hosts rate their time together. They also recognize that most people want to spend less time online–so they subtract the time on their website, ending up with net positive time spent.

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If some websites offered paid versions that helped people spend their time better, they might not necessarily cost that much. When Harris last looked at the numbers, he found that the average Facebook user is worth about $7 a year to the company in revenue. It’s not inconceivable that some people would be willing to pay $7 a year to better use their time on Facebook. Or possibly even more.

“This is kind of what happened with organic food–once you say here’s this valuable thing people want, you can actually sell it at a slightly higher price,” Harris says. “You can make more money off people who want the conscious, premium, better-for-us versions.”

There are also some other recent experiments, like Google’s Contributor tool, which lets you bid on your value to a website so you don’t see ads. “You pay how much you value your attention, and then the ads don’t show up,” he says. “That’s a real functioning product now.”

Eventually–with enough interest–attention might be something that society values enough to build into policy, so products always have to be designed to respect it. “Right now, your attention is not something we’ve designated a human right,” says Harris. “We actually say the market values your attention, so if you want it back, you don’t just get to get it, you have to pay us for it. Which is kind of a weird situation to be in.”

Harris and collaborators like Joe Edelman have started leading workshops with designers who want to take a different approach. A growing number of designers have been interested.

“You know how to make things work well for people, and then you go to work at any one of these attention economy tech companies, and no matter want you want to do to make things better for people, it doesn’t matter–it matters, ‘does the thing keep people’s attention or not?'”

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At the meetups, designers analyze a piece of technology to understand how it shapes someone’s time–like the smartphone. “When you wake up in the morning and turn your phone over, you see this list of notifications, and that just puts someone in a mode where they owe this debt to the world,” Harris says. “It’s almost like the phone is saying these are the things that are important in your life to be thinking about.”

Next, the designers spend a couple of hours using a technique to redesign that interaction. Some of it may be something they can incorporate into their work right away–someone at the online education site Khan Academy, for example, could think of new ways to measure success beyond metrics like how many times students watch a video. Another site might be able to think of ways to continue to maximize screen time–at least for now–but in a way that’s actually related to what people want to do.

But real change isn’t likely to come, Harris says, unless consumers ask for it. He compares it to the cigarette industry. “They had this product, it’s highly addictive, they had teams of engineers who were working on keeping it addictive,” he says. In the ’60s, a tobacco company developed a safer cigarette–but didn’t bring it to market because they didn’t want to make their other products look bad.

“You need consumer demand, you need people to demand what’s good for them,” Harris says. “Because that’s what lets those companies do the right thing. Otherwise they’re kind of in a bind.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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