Inside the Design Studio: the Ethics of Design DNA

DesignAugust 16th, 2018

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Part one of a series

Companies need to make money. People need to stay healthy. Is there a way we can balance the two?    

Leaders from Beyond’s design team tackled this always-on question from a digital point of view as part of General Assembly’s educational panel series, ‘Inside the Design Studio.’ They set out to understand the extent of the responsibility that rests on the shoulders of digital product designers and how they influence well-being. They explored the possible paths of tech addiction and reinforcement algorithms, and the roles that companies, designers, users–and even government–might each play in shaping the outcomes.

This article focuses on dependency issues, and represents the first entry in a three-part series.

What is screen addiction, and how do you measure it?

The World Health Organization recently included gaming addiction in its International Classification of Diseases. Despite what worried parents might think however, not every screen-loving teen–or compulsive grown-up–falls into the danger zone. Diagnosis requires meeting some steep criteria–including twelve months or more of severe symptoms that affect work, social ties and wellness, a lack of control over gaming behaviors, and persistence of the behaviors in the face of negative consequences. And some mental health professionals argue digital dependencies stem from anxiety and depression, rather than cause them.  At the very least however, the WHO recognition shines a spotlight on screen addiction as a real and growing concern.  

But if the medical experts and psychologists can’t can’t agree on a definition, where should the rest of us discern the ‘engagement’ vs. ‘addiction’ divide?

Panelists at the General Assembly event broadened the discussion to include media platforms as well as gaming, and focused on the tension between users’ intentions and their potential loss of control. “Engagement empowers the user,” explained Idil Berkan, Beyond’s Director of Design. “It’s goal driven. Addiction happens when user behavior gets manipulated, and users are no longer in the driver’s seat.”

The design dilemma

But designers have a financial imperative to get users to stick around. ‘Foster repeat engagement’ often serves as their governing metric. This can create a real strain between marching orders and ethical concerns. “If the driver behind acquisition/conversion is not an ethical one, it can lead to dark UX patterns,” warned Mitchell Hart, Beyond’s Director of Product Design.  And, as Emma Netland–UX Designer at Beyond–explained, designers often use levers and techniques that may fall into the gray area. “There’s a set of ‘tricks’–like ‘hook models’ such as variable rewards — we can use to keep users checking and coming back.” Compounding the issue, Emma recounted studies showing human beings lack the ability to predict their own behavior, or even describe with accuracy how they’ve behaved in the past.

Co-crafting solutions

To navigate, Mitchell suggested taking a hard look at design DNA. “Are we tricking people into clicking, or staying longer than they intended? If so, it might be appropriate for designers to push back, to find a better way to marry the goals of the product with the intentions of the user.”

But despite the notion of a Pavlovian consumer caught in designers’ dark and addictive Web, Ben Martin, Beyond’s Director of Content, argued individuals still have agency. “Users have to be more responsible about what they submit themselves to,” he stated. “People choose to take any given action, to download an app or start playing or keep browsing through content. What designers and content providers can do, is to provide more education to help.”

“Being aware is the first step towards taking control,” agreed Emma.  And the market seems to be sympathizing with this need. Panelists noted that Google and Apple have introduced a suite of ‘wellness features’ on their mobile devices that include a the ability to track how much time users spend daily on any given site or app. They expressed optimism that such consumer education will stand out as a differentiator, and its adoption among platforms and providers will spread.    

But will it be enough?

Matt Basford, General Manager of Beyond NY, expressed his doubts. “Advertising isn’t going away anytime soon. So unfortunately, most likely neither are the persuasive tactics platform-based companies rely on. Idealism can only take you so far.”

Stakeholders, however, are in this ecosystem together–and each has cards they can play.  The destination is still out of view, but growing sensitivity to the problem makes for a promising first step.