Within the last 10 years or so, software infiltrated almost every facet of our lives. Today, it’s with us everywhere we go. It’s in our pockets, strapped to our bodies, scanning our faces and listening to our voices.
This rapid ascent was no accident. The tech industry is obsessed with growth and market domination. Investors expect engagement metrics rocketing higher every quarter. Advertisers demand more eyeballs, more taps, more data. More is always better.
To achieve those constantly upward trends, software companies keep finding new ways to capture our dwindling time and attention, often resorting to dark patterns and aggressive tactics.
The result People are overwhelmed, distracted and flat-out addicted to software — both at work and home. Things are so hilariously out of control, there are even phone apps that help you stop looking at phone apps.
In the design community, a small movement has been brewing around these issues, shining a light on harmful interfaces and shady business practices. It feels like an inflexion point. After years of rapid change, it’s now time to pause and reflect critically on the Frankenstein’s monsters we built.
The software design features that keep you hooked
Think about the software products you use every day. They probably include all the following problematic behaviours — and you might be hooked on them more than you think.
1. Notification blasts: In the always-connected era, our days are dictated by a cacophony of buzzes, beeps and badges. Every time you’re dinged by a new email, group chat, text message or push alert, it’s an irresistible interruption that steals your focus from any meaningful thing you might have been doing.
In isolation, each little distraction seems excusable, but in the aggregate, it’s death by a thousand cuts. Every year it seems to get worse, with ever-more apps and gadgets vying for your exhausted eye.
This is a destructive pattern that wrecks our productivity, and we’ve all just accepted it as a routine part of our day.
How can we improve? For starters, turn those dings off! Then spread the peace to your friends and co-workers by changing your behaviour. Don’t expect others to get back to you instantly. If you’re in charge of the tools your company uses, wean everyone off the workplace apps that encourage immediate real-time responses. Switch to products that prioritize asynchronous communication methods instead.
2. Status and presence indicators: If you’ve used a chat app to work with a group, you’re probably familiar with those little-coloured dots that show each person’s status. Online, Away, Out to Lunch.
These features appear helpful on the surface, but look closer and you’ll notice they subtly encourage bad habits. A status indicator implies you’re being watched, and that you’re supposed to be “around” — always available and reporting your whereabouts during work hours.
This makes people feel anxious and glued to the app, particularly if the boss is using status to see whether people are working or not. (In reality, it reveals nothing of the sort — you can easily show yourself as “Online” while walking the dog.)
Worst of all, that green dot is like an open invitation. It broadcasts that you’re at your desk, ready for interruptions. As if we needed any more of those!
3. Vanity metrics: Back when video game arcades were big, earning a prominent high score was an impressive feat worth bragging to your friends about.
Modern software designers took that high score concept and perverted it to keep people hooked on their platforms. Practically every action you take on the internet now has some vanity count attached to it. Likes, faves, followers, retweets, views, reads, claps, reactions … the list goes on and on.
These counts act like a drug for your brain. When everything you say or post has a popularity measurement, you inevitably start gaming things and judging everything against the numbers.
What a waste of energy. In the real world, those numbers mean almost nothing, so why do we let them control our minds? At Basecamp, we’re experimenting with removing our “Applause” feature and uncovering all the anxiety and hidden social obligations it was causing.
4. Infinite feeds: Sometimes software is designed to help people accomplish tasks. Other times it’s designed to help software companies make money.
Infinite-scrolling feeds fall squarely into the latter category. Think of apps like Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn: Almost every social service relies on this idea for its core interface.
What’s the business motivation behind this design? To have you stick around for as long as possible, of course! That’s why it’s the information equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. And just like a buffet, you’re guaranteed to overeat every time you visit.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Imagine if these apps cared about your diet, and served only a properly sized meal.
One example of this was the NYT Now app. Instead of a never-ending feed, it broke each day’s news into thoughtful briefings with about eight to 10 stories total. And that was it. If you got to the bottom, you were done. Come back tomorrow. What a respectful and refreshing model.
Reclaiming your most valuable currency: your attention
There’s an underlying theme in all these features: Software companies desperately want you to stick around. They need you using their product again and again. You’re a valuable number they can report to their corporate masters, so they suck you in with subtle psychological and social tricks.
That sounds troubling, but you still have the power in this relationship! Your attention is a valuable currency. Take steps to preserve it. Support the products that bring you to calm instead of chaos.
If we collectively push back on these bad practices and vote with our time and money, things will change for the better.