Is a smartphone a product that consumers love, or is it a product they are addicted to? Is Facebook an access point to human connection, or a flood of advertising and irrelevant media? Why do we spend so much of our time and attention on technology that doesn’t actually help us accomplish our goals?
The technology that we use every day is not necessarily designed for the purpose we use it for. When we log in to social media accounts, we’re there to make new connections, access media, or entertain ourselves.
The problem is that in today’s so-called “attention economy,” the tech we use daily is actually designed to keep us engaged with zero regard for the value of our time, instead of helping us accomplish our goals more efficiently.
When we look at past innovations in technology, we can watch the trend go from “Let’s create a brand new tool that solves our problem.” to “Let’s create something that people won’t be able to stop using.” In the article linked above, Oliver Burkeman pinpoints the 2010s as the turning point when the business model evolved into “the monetisation of attention.”
The steam engine, the light bulb, the first car, the personal computer—all of these innovations are tools that we continue to use to this day. Simply put, they’re products that we love, and we love them and continue to use them because they were so effective at solving a problem. But these innovations are different from relatively recent innovations like social media.
While social media, apps, and services are vital tools that we use to meet our needs, they’re also being used by companies to profit, at our expense. The model for profit is based on engagement; the longer we use social media, for example, the better it is for business.
How many times have you spent extra time using an app or a service, or looked up from your phone and wondered where the time went? At that point, your technology is no longer a tool to help you live a better life or accomplish your goals more efficiently. It's working to benefit a business based on their model for profit.
This isn’t a new model. Attention has always been a valuable commodity in business; we recognize every technique from sensational headlines in newspapers to television commercial jingles and slogans. The difference is that whereas before, the purpose was to catch our attention, now the purpose is to hold our attention for extended periods of time.
One of the most common techniques is gamification, a powerful design tool that uses gaming mechanics in real-life situations. The principles of gamification are deeply rooted in psychology. Reaching certain set goals or objectives results in a reward, for example. Certain emotions and desires are triggered to drastically increase engagement.
Although it’s widely used in design in what can be considered a negative way (keeping you glued to your phone to swipe through just one more level in Candy Crush), gamification can also be implemented in positive ways. Gamification has been applied to education, cybersecurity, exercise, and even digital wellbeing.
The tools of design aren’t a negative; the real negative is the shift in mindset that resulted in our attention being bought and sold; but that mindset is shifting again.
We’ve been using the same tired, manipulative technology for a decade now. Companies like Apple and Google have already realized that consumers are looking for technology that works for the consumer, not for the business.
Technology serves a purpose; but whose purpose is it really serving right now?
The next successful innovation will be a product that is designed with intention, and attention paid primarily to what users actually need in order to accomplish their goals. That's the problem the next big tech innovation should solve: user-centric design should be prioritized.
It will ask the right questions, like “What need is not being met by current technology?” “What features and benefits are people missing right now?” “What possible consequences should designers be aware of?” and “What experience should this product provide that other products are not providing?”
The next big innovation will be a product that people love to use, but they won't have to sacrifice their time and attention to use it.