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Design & Technology September 26, 2018

Time as an ethical compass towards more mindful design

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How is it, that with all the amazing technology we have today, we seem more occupied than ever? Wasn’t the promise of ‘smart’ technology to free us from unnecessary and repetitive tasks, so we’d have more time for the things that we care about most?

Yet here we are, almost compulsively refreshing our timelines and responding to notifications for the better part of each day. We can’t seem to survive a commute, meeting or even elevator ride without reaching for our devices. As a result, we spend almost six hours of our private time staring at our screens. And of those six hours, at least two are on social media, meaning lots of us spend more time looking at our friends on a screen than actually hanging out with them. On top of that, research shows that we spend way longer on the apps and sites that make us feel unhappy.

It’s about time

Nonetheless, this is not new information. Tristan Harris started the conversation about this topic several years ago. Initially as a Design Ethicist at Google and from 2016 onwards independently with his ‘Time Well Spent’ movement that later evolved into the ‘Center for Humane Technology’. I first heard about Harris in the early stages of last year when I spoke about this issue at a local meet-up.

Since then though, what’s surprised me the most is the lack of attention this issue has had. Why hasn’t it gained more momentum within the design community or even outside of it? Part of the problem is down to the fact that we assume that the big corporations, like Google and Facebook, are responsible and that there is little that we can do. But in my opinion, everybody creating client-facing digital products and communication should assume an equal part of the responsibility. Moreover, this is a sensitive topic for both designers and users. For designers, because they don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them. And for the users, because screen-based media became such an fundamental part of their lives, that it’s hard questioning it. But most of all, many of the factors involved haven’t been thoroughly studied, making it a fairly complicated topic.

However, I believe there is an easier way for everybody to objectively value their creation and consumption of digital content. And it all has to do with time.

Your time isn’t infinite

Time is the framework around which we organise our lives. We eat at certain times, meet at certain times, sleep at certain times. We plan by the hour, we invoice by the hour. And we celebrate when a certain amount of time has passed. The harsh truth is that our amount of hours are limited and are slowly ticking away. We all know this, but we aren’t really conscious about it. As a result, we spend a big part of our lives presuming that the time we have left to do meaningful things is almost infinite. However, when you actually start counting, things might not look so sunny.

Let’s look at the time we spend with our parents for example. Imagine that your parents are 62 (like mine) and that they will live up until 80. That means they’d have 18 more years to live. 18 more summers. And probably less in great health. If you would visit them once a month (like I do) and your visits last around 4 hours, this means that you have something like 800 hours left. With both of them.

In comparison, an average user will burn through the same 800 hours behind a screen, in well under 6 months. In their free time. Doing lots of not so meaningful things. Like looking at things they don’t really need, and people that they don’t really know.

Time is a currency

It is not completely our fault that we are so glued to our screens. It’s no secret that our attention, and therefore time, is big business. Everything seems to be designed in a way that tickles our curiosity. That’s why the movies autoplay, the newsfeeds are never-ending and the notifications keep popping up, even when there is nothing left to see.

It’s understandable that companies use these mechanics from a commercial point of view. But it’s kind of unethical in the bigger scheme of things. Because what these mechanics are basically doing, is taking away little bits of time for their benefit. What’s even worse, is that these mechanics seem to distort our value hierarchy. In other words, they affect our ability to distinguish between what’s important and what’s not. And over the long run, being sincerely happy and fulfilled, shifts closer and closer to being trivially entertained and busy.

Now just to be clear, I’m not saying that we should all go on a digital detox, get a flip-phone and become yogis. I love technology and all the amazing stuff it brings us every single day. I’m also not trying to make moral judgements about what’s a good way to spend your time. Whether you enjoy listening to five-hour long history podcasts or enjoy watching supercuts of corgi flops, that’s completely up to you.

But what I am saying, is that a lot of the time we spend behind screens is either unintentional or unnecessary, and that we need to do something about it. For ourselves but especially for the coming generations.

Mindful digital experiences

I believe that we as ‘makers’ need to take the initiative. And I don’t believe the solution is in creating less digital experiences, but in creating more mindful digital experiences. If we can use our knowledge on storytelling, persuasion and retargeting to take people’s attention and time, why don’t we make it our goal to give some of it back to them?

How about a newsletter that unsubscribes itself when you no longer open it, like Rockstart (a startup accelerator from Amsterdam)? Or a chatbot that sees that you cancelled a ride, and offers you a refund the second you open it as Lyft does? Or submitting a video message instead of filling in a tedious long form to claim something on your renters insurance, like Lemonade?

These examples may seem small, but in fact, they are big gestures. By mindfully designing their communication and products, these companies are giving us little gifts of time and show us that there are better ways to engage in the digital world.

Valuable interactions

It leads me to conclude that what people truly want from technology is not an urge to interact more with it but a need to interact less with it. And it’s up to us, the makers, to shape technology in a way so that it works for us rather than against us. So technology starts living up to its promise. That way, we’ll end up with more attention (and time) for the interactions we truly care about, because those moments are much, much scarcer than we may realise. And I don’t believe that anyone will look back on life, remembering the moments they were looking at a screen.

So to all designers, next time that you’re creating something digital, whether it’s an e-mail, a social post or even a feature for a website or an app, ask yourself this: ‘how will this affect someone’s time?’ And although it’s definitely not the solution for everything, I think it’s a start.

And to everybody else, the next time you find yourself halfway through ‘17 egg boiling hacks that are borderline genius’ on Buzzfeed at 01:00 in the morning, just ask yourself this: ‘How much time do I have left for what I love most?’

P.S. If you clicked that last link, you totally proved my point.

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