Most of us have a love-hate relationship with technology. We love the convenience it brings, but we also feel overwhelmed by how absolutely it permeates our lives.
Given the recent news coverage about social media sites, quite a few people have started asking that same old question: is all this technology good for us?
Since the topic is in the news again, I thought it was worth trying to explain that, from our point of view, that’s the wrong question. Software can be many things, from unusably clunky to wholly intuitive. It can make us more productive and less productive. It can make us happy, miserable, and everything in between.
What best predicts those outcomes is not just the talent of those who design it, but their reason for doing so. It’s a topic that doesn’t get discussed as much as it should, and it’s a shame because it has an enormous impact on how we live our lives.
From the second we wake up in the morning to the time we fall asleep, we are using software. We work on Windows or Mac OS, or, for some of us, Linux. We talk to loved ones on Facebook, and Whatsapp, we share our opinions on Twitter.
Software is not something we use – it’s where we live.
And each facet of the systems within which we live our lives was designed by someone with a goal in mind. Someone – actually a large group of someones in most cases – sat down and carefully mapped out what the system would do, how it would look, and what it would be like to use it.
All across the world, in the private and public sphere, programmers are building systems that will shape how we live, work, and socialize for years to come.
So, the question is what sort of systems are they motivated to build?
God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains
Have you ever logged into Facebook to check an event invitation, only to find yourself still glued to the screen an hour later, scrolling through the photos of a complete stranger’s holiday? Do you ever get sent a link to a YouTube clip, only to get sucked down the rabbit-hole of related videos?
The addictive nature of social media is getting more and more attention. For all the benefits it has brought, it’s clear that for many of us, social media platforms have affected our behaviour in a negative way.
Should this be a surprise? If we take a step back, there was always a fundamental dichotomy between what users wanted from these platforms and how these platforms made money.
Facebook and YouTube rely on advertising for their revenue. Every extra moment you are paying attention has value to them, because your attention is what they are selling to those advertisers.
Newspapers and television channels operates on the same principle. HBO would jump at the chance to alter viewer behaviour if they could. The difference is that when you create software, you’re controlling the environment within which that behaviour will occur.
Las Vegas casinos work much the same way. If you ever take a trip to one, you’ll notice that the gambling happens away from natural light – if guests can’t see the cycle of night and day, they’re more likely to gamble for longer. To leave the casino, you have to pass by the slot machines, increasing the chance you decide to have one last shot at the jackpot before you leave.
People have different views about the ethics of these tactics, but no one is surprised by them. After all, why wouldn’t a casino seek to increase its take?
And yet, users are still adjusting to the idea that the major social media platforms were designed to encourage users to behave in such a way as to maximize their revenue.
In a surprisingly candid interview at Axios last year, Sean Parker, one of the early investors in Facebook, laid out the ethos behind Facebook’s design.
According to Parker, the question guiding Facebook in the early days was: ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’
‘God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains,’ he added later in the same interview.
Designing something that works
We’re lucky at LawPanel, because our business model encourages us to stick with good design principles. Our users want to us to help them save time, so we’re motivated to make it easy to use.
To put it plainly, we make money if using LawPanel makes it easier for attorneys and IP owners to manage their trademarks. Our interests are totally aligned.
This informs every aspect of our design process. We want the system to be attractive to look at, because people will often spend a lot of time on it, and we want it to increase time-efficiency as much as possible.
From our point of view, we are creating the digital environment within which attorneys and IP owners are going to spend a significant period of their working life. That environment needs to be productive enough that people choose to do their work within it, and it needs to keep on being productive as time goes by.
So, when it comes to the ongoing debate about how technology is affecting us, it’s worth remembering that software designers, like everyone else, are affected by the context in which they operate. When the user and the designer are not on the same page, sooner or later there are going to be problems.
When the user and designer are on the same page, though, you’ll find technology at its best.