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How To Design Non-Addictive UX (It’s Really Not Hard)

To wean users off their devices, UX designers can deploy the very tricks that made their products so addictive in the first place, writes Bruce Nussbaum.

How To Design Non-Addictive UX (It’s Really Not Hard)
[Photos: George Morgan/Unsplash, Papaioannou Kostas/Unsplash]

The defining change in the field of design that brought design, finally, to the attention of Silicon Valley was the rise of UX. The ability to design great engagements for consumers of mobile technology added enormous value to high-tech companies— and to the design profession itself. Designers finally moved from the periphery to the center of business as engineers and coders recognized the critical importance of a designed experience. In the past decade, design and technology have morphed into a single product process.

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In the current discussion over Apple, Facebook, and Twitter turning our kids into phone and social media addicts, there is a need for both designers and engineers who do UX to step forward and take responsibility for their design deeds. This is starting to happen, but has not reached critical mass.

If you deconstruct what “great UX” actually translates into, you often get an addictive digital site where consumers are manipulated to feel compelled to visit again and again. It is a space where you are captured, examined via your data, and targeted by advertisers selling you stuff. Las Vegas gambling casinos have long been known to be designed for addiction. Kids aren’t allowed at slot machines. They are, however, permitted to get in front of any screen that comes their way, and they are pulled into what companies love to think of as a “great consumer experience”–as we all are.

Hence the need for a new Detox Design. We need to use all the practices of UX to help get us off our addiction to devices. Here are a few suggestions for how to do Detox Design:

  1. Throw in some dirt. Device addiction depends on quick connection and fast feedback. Slow it all down by throwing some digital dirt into the process. Design the UX to make it a bit harder to connect and respond. Add a step. Slow the fix.
  2. Sound the alarms. Feedback is needed to show people just how “much” addiction they are experiencing in a day. So use data like time and intensity of an interaction to measure addiction — and show it to the user. The “showing” should be emotional and scary. Color and sound are great for that. Design a green/amber/red line on the side of the screen that illustrates usage. Put some sound in there that screams when a user goes too far. Design emojis that entreat users to stop, warn them if they go too far, and chastise them when they fail to stop.
  3. Build a crack tracker. Design a tracker that shows online time and intensity. Just as steps and miles data trackers help you be healthy, so too could a data crack tracker diminish your online cravings.
  4. Offer a “cold turkey” option. Timers that simply shut users down after 1, 2, 4, or 10 hours on a device could be a great design element. I bet many devices already have one buried deep into their software. Countdown clocks that show the minutes and hours to the end might also work. This Detox Design element might be especially appealing to parents.
  5. Diversify. It can’t be lost on anyone that most of the the voices warning about digital addiction are men who, as young engineers and coders, were directly responsible for creating the features that lead to digital addiction. Tony Fadell at Nest, Sean Parker at Facebook, Evan Williams at Twitter all lament what digital experiences they helped design are doing to our children, our relationships, our values. Grown-up now and parents of young children, they are full of regret. But as “boy techies,” they were all into faster and more types of interaction, the key elements of addictive design. Bringing more women, people of color, and additional voices into the “boy cultures” of Facebook, Twitter, and Apple would add other dimensions to UX design that promote sociability rather than excitability.

    Just how hard will it be to develop Detox Design? Not very. We already live in a world of incessant alerts and warnings. Our phones buzz at us. They show our declining daily battery life. We get weather alerts for snow, tornadoes, and tsunamis. We get alerts for missing children and incoming missiles. Our fire and carbon monoxide detectors talk to us and emit scary sounds and flashing lights. Our car dashboards show how many miles we can drive (if it’s an electric) or how much gas we have left. Our printers alert us to low ink and order up more.

    We swim in a culture of warning, and with AI and machine learning on the rise it will only get worse — or better. All the alerting and warning and buzzing that is now often used to feed our device addiction can be used to wean us off that addiction. The design forms and tools are already available. We just have to commit to using them.

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About the author

Bruce Nussbaum is the author of Creative Intelligence (HarperBusiness, March 2013). He is "Mentor-In-Residence" at NEW INC, the art/technology incubator of New Museum.

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