There’s been a global shift in product design – Here’s why it matters

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Have you been in a situation where you meet your friends you haven’t seen in a while, sit with them at the table, but instead of talking to each other, you all look at your phones? Sometimes it feels like we’re more interested in seeing what’s happening on our smartphone screen rather than what’s happening in the life of someone sitting next to us.

Some people think this behavior should be taken for granted in the age of technology. But the roots of this behavior are not in the technology but rather in the way we use this technology. The fundamental problem with modern product design is to focus too much on improving user engagement. So here’s what product creators should be doing about it and why it matters.

User attention is a valuable resource

User engagement is one of the essential metrics in product design, as many products rely on an ad-based revenue model to monetize their work. In this model, time spent in an app equals money: the more time users spend in the app, the more ads they will see and the more money app makers will receive. But even for apps that don’t rely on the ad-based model, user engagement is vital because the more time users spend in an app, the more likely they are to convert (i.e. purchase a product, fill out a form, etc.). In other words, in the world we live in, where people spend their attention is where the money goes.

Related: Find out how product design can inform all aspects of your business

Intentional creation of dependency to create better engagement

The race to attract more human attention is not something new, and it started long before digital products. First, it was the era of print media (newspapers and magazines). People usually read a newspaper at some point during the day (i.e. they check the news before starting a day). Then came the era of television where viewers could turn on a television at any time of the day. But the television era didn’t give viewers much freedom to control what content they wanted to watch – a viewer had to check the TV schedule to find out when their favorite TV show would air.

And, finally, it is the age of the Internet. The internet age has given users a superpower to decide when and how they want to consume content. The internet is a highly competitive field, and product creators are actively looking for ways to motivate users to consume the content they offer. Quite often they use techniques that keep users in the app – and these techniques really work.

Techniques such as using an infinite scrolling feed with personalized content can consume countless hours in front of screens. As a result, some people may hang up their phones even when walking down the street. Recently, the special term “zombie mobile” or “zombie mobi” has been coined to describe this dangerous behavior. People ignore everything that happens near them because they are so busy interacting with their phone.

This manipulation also has a substantial negative effect on well-being. It is proven that the more content we consume on social networks, the less happy we become. Not surprisingly, less than half of Gen Zers born in the internet age (mid to late 1990s) report having good mental health.

Related: When Your Product Design Makes Your Customers Smart

Digital design needs to change

Many people blame technology for what is happening in our society. But technologies are not inherently bad; they are just tools that help us work more efficiently. The way product creators use technologies is what makes them look bad. As long as we strive to create products that inspire people to spend more time online and measure design effectiveness in terms of average session time and daily or monthly active users, we’re doing a terrible thing .

Product makers should stop measuring app success by how many hours people spend in apps and go back to the roots of digital design, making technology more human. Human technology helps people work efficiently but does not take them away from the real world. Two big companies interested in improving user well-being – Apple and Google – are both trying to discourage excessive smartphone use. Apple provides users with a weekly Screen Time report that helps them track their time on mobile devices, while Google offers Digital Wellbeing with the same idea. It’s a good step in the right direction, but it’s not enough. First, users are unlikely to set time limits for apps after viewing the report. Second, product creators are unlikely to change their commercial behavior to minimize engagement.

The only way for tech giants to change the way products are designed is to move from information to action and introduce policies that will govern how product creators must design their products. For example, any application submitted to Google Play or AppStore can be verified if it uses addictive mechanisms. Additionally, iOS and Android can measure the time users spend in the app and proactively limit that time (i.e. parental controls, but for parents). However, this decision will force the tech giants to accept these policies, which is not easy as they have to apply the rules to their own products. But this is the only way for the situation to change.

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