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Why you should design for breakups—and let your users go

Do the right thing. Let your users move on.

Why you should design for breakups—and let your users go
[Illustration: Daniel Salo/Fast Company]

Digital consumer products as a category are still in their early and awkward teenage years. The launch of the iPhone in 2007 blasted people into a frenzy of digital consumption. That consumption has only increased exponentially. The digital world is new and novel. Everyone is excited to be here—so who’s thinking about leaving?

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Not social media platforms, that’s for sure. Scroll, dopamine hit, scroll, dopamine hit. Social media is designed to satisfy the lizard parts of the human brains. The metric of success is for more users to sign up, create content, and never leave. Social media is doing exactly what it set out to do. For that, it is both successful and arguably evil.

Social media is the equivalent of casinos. The windows are all blocked off, there’s no reference to time, everything is competing for your attention, and there’s no end in sight. The success of these patterns in capturing users’ attention has inspired other digital experiences to also employ some of these tactics. Publication and shopping sites have infinite scroll and YouTube and Netflix auto-play never-ending content without prompt.

And notifications—there are so many little red dots! Ironically, there’s also no shortage of studies showing the negative impacts of tech usage to physical and mental health. This begs the question: What do we really mean when we say “user experience” and “human-centered design”?

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We have been designing experiences that lure and trap users in elaborate labyrinths with no exits, and it’s time to change. Unquestionably, most product development time is spent on finessing product features and ensuring a seamless onboarding experience, but it’s borderline taboo to consider the experience of a user leaving our product. When we see user numbers drop, we become reactive. We try to add more bells and whistles to entice users to stay. And when all else fails, we deploy dark patterns to make it difficult to delete an account.

It’s hard to let a relationship go, and it’s even harder when doing so has financial consequences. But the best relationships are ones of mutual respect, especially when parting ways. It leaves a lasting, positive impression. By considering the entirety of the user’s journey, including when users leave our product, we can design for a more holistic and human-centered experience.

‘It’s not you—it’s my quantified self’

Users are not stagnant, unchangeable people. It’s easy to think of our users as one type of person with one set of circumstances because that fits neatly into the persona we’ve created. But it’s inevitable—even natural—for users to drop off after using a product for some time.

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The tension between staying or leaving is most pronounced in products that focus on well-being, because the raison d’être for these products is to help people be a better version of themselves. Ending usage should feel like an accomplishment or graduation for the user, but often it feels like failure or avoidance. Design can make or break that feeling.

Products like MyFitnessPal and Fitbit in theory are wonderful for people trying to manage and create healthy habits. Tracking fitness activities helps people visualize progress toward health goals. That visualization in turn keeps them motivated to continue. Once the pattern has been established and healthy habits are formed, some users might go further, accepting challenges to push beyond their initial goals.

But for most users, being able to form and maintain this new lifestyle is the accomplishment. What happens now for these users? What do they do with the tracking bracelet and all of the data that’s been collected? Can users be given agency to try maintaining the habit on their own for a period of time? Can they be transitioned from daily use to weekly, then monthly?

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Another kind of digital experience that underscores this tension are apps designed for parents of newborns—like Hatch Baby. They allow parents to log weight, dirty and wet diapers, and frequency and duration of feeding. This data can help a sleep-deprived parent see patterns and identify problems. But once the baby transitions to a toddler, this collection of data is no longer relevant—plus, who’s got time when they have a toddler? What is a “delightful” way for the app to phase out of this user’s life? Can it provide a certificate of accomplishment for the 50 gallons of breast milk a mother produced in a year? At the very least, can it weave a story of growth from the data that it has collected? Can it gift a neat little time capsule?

Theoretically, the metric of success for a dating app should be for the user to find a match and no longer require the services of said app. Yet, after spending so much time creating their profiles—and presumably even more time interacting with potential matches—how is there not a more graceful way to end the relationship with the app than to merely delete it once they have found their special someone. Has anyone considered a “conscious uncoupling” (thanks, Gwyneth!) for the user and the app?

The dating app Hinge has. It stands out from the crowd by promoting itself as “the dating app designed to be deleted.”

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Tim MacGougan, Hinge’s chief product officer, talks about the positive impact of this decision:

Aside from the fact that we’re all caring people who genuinely want the best for our users, it’s actually a good thing if users quit the app for a relationship we helped form. Those people are out in the real world constantly answering the first question most couples get: ‘How did you two meet?’ When they say Hinge, that is the most authentic marketing, referral, and driver of growth that there could be.

Trending toward the break

In product design, we’ve mostly seen examples of the nebulous “we were on a break” while the (final) clean break remains elusive. Ritual, a subscription-based vitamin company, understands that taking a daily vitamin can be a difficult routine to build and maintain, so they made it easy to snooze subscriptions. When the customer is ready to continue, the subscription can easily be resumed. Continuously sending more vitamins when a customer doesn’t want any can only result in a frustrating experience that leads to cancelation.

Though not entirely promoting users to ditch its product, Apple, in 2018, introduced Screen Time for people to manage their time with apps or their devices. Other Big Tech companies, like Google and Microsoft, are also beginning to shift some attention to the idea of digital well-being.

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At the core of digital well-being is an undeniable fact that avid consumers of digital products need a break from digital products. And beyond a break, sometimes they just need to permanently separate. That experience should be easily available and as thoughtful as the rest of the product.

This hopeful signal from companies like Hinge, Ritual, and Big Tech could mean a tidal shift in product development. The path is clear if we want to stay relevant. We—product designers, developers, and creators—need to consider our users as fully formed individuals with lives outside of our products, and it’s up to us to design products with a beginning, a middle, and most importantly, an end.


Liz Tan is a product design leader with more than 15 years of experience. Currently a lead product designer at Postlight, she is responsible for strategy, vision, and execution of high-impact projects. In her spare time, she likes taking pictures of museum chairs and crafting custom clothing for her daughter. Say hello at liz.tan@postlight.com, or follow her on Twitter @liztan.

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This article was adapted with the author’s permission. Read the original here

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