What if tech tried to be healing instead of just addictive?
Whether you are a giant global platform or a hip new startup, the most important first step in your business plan should be to care about mental wellbeing.
Despite the growing research into the negative impact that screen-based technologies can have on wellbeing, the trick the tech sector people have somehow pulled off is that they have made it our problem, not theirs. We are told to try things such as digital detoxes to learn how to use our devices in more balanced ways. My own work includes helping people include their technology in how they understand and practice mindfulness. However, both these approaches still makes it our problem while ignoring the root cause.
It is ridiculous that we blame young people for being addicted to their phones and apps when the simple truth is that they are designed to be addictive. It is time to apportion responsibility where it is due.
Addiction is not an accident: it is a strategy. In the world of app economics, addiction is what brings in the money. Whether it’s by trapping your attention and then selling it to advertisers or by trapping your attention and manipulating you to make a one-off or subscription-based payment, the basic idea is the same: catch that attention and then monetise it.
As a maker of mindfulness meditation apps, I work in the space where technology and wellbeing meet. It is an exciting place to be, but I know that no matter how successful the biggest wellbeing apps in the world become, they’ll never even come close to being in the same league as Facebook, Snapchat or Clash of Clans. It was reflecting on this that I realised that for mindfulness to truly scale up, the solution may not be to make specialist products, but instead to stitch it into everything.
The whole premise of mindfulness is that by deliberately training our attention in certain ways, we can grow a range of positive qualities such as self-awareness, calm, kindness and concentration. But this process doesn’t only happen when we do something like meditation. When our attention is given away to an app, a game or website, the same mind-training process takes place but this time we’re no longer in charge of the technique or the outcome – the company is.
So should you run a video service, a social network, a news site or a mobile game, by definition your product has an impact on the mental health of your users – be that negative, neutral or positive. And the sad reality is that if you are not optimising that impact, it tends to be the former: which means distraction, stress, self-criticism and all the rest.
It is easy to throw our hands in the air, declaring that this is simply how technology works, but that’s not correct. The reason that so much tech doesn’t support wellbeing is because wellbeing was not a consideration in its design. To solve the problem, companies have to make it a design condition that’s measured and optimised.
Whether you are a giant global platform or a hip new startup, the most important first step is to give a damn. Then if you still decide to use techniques that undermine that wellbeing, at least you will be doing that consciously, rather than through ignorance or denial.
The next logical step is to be honest about the techniques and tricks you use in your product. The technology world has developed all sorts of ways to trap consumers’ attention. Netflix’s autoplay feature makes it so easy to binge-watch that before you know it, you’ve gone through seven hours of The Good Wife. Instagram’s infinite scroll of images gives you just enough of a dopamine hit to keep on going so that you get to the next ad. These tricks have become so routine that designers now rarely think about the impact they have.
An important area for these improvements is notifications. Notifications are a great example of a feature that’s great for the product but bad for the user, since not only do they distract us from what we were doing but they also cause anxiety about the things we’ve missed out on or have piling up. There is very little good about an inbox icon showing a red circle with a high number on it. Notifications can be easily made more friendly by bundling them into daily packages rather than in real time. One of my favourite suggestions for how to remove app icon notifications is to display the level of unread messages by the weight of the app name’s font. So if you had lots of emails, your Mail app would be very bold but if you didn’t have any, then it would be lighter.
While it is unlikely that a technology that’s having a negative impact will magically transform itself into being actively good for us, the ambition should be for it to at least be neutral. Because if you have 1 billion users, avoiding harm is in itself a massive result. And while it entirely depends on the specifics of a product as to what improvements can be made, there are some general principles that apply, such as discouraging addictive users, avoiding attention traps, reducing social anxiety and respecting how information is presented.
In support of those changes, companies also need to develop metrics that represent a more holistic view. The last two decades have seen widespread adoption of measures related to environmental or social impact, and there is no reason why wellbeing impact cannot be accounted for in the same way.
Ultimately money will talk, and much of this will come down to the business case. It is possible to make changes to products that don’t sabotage their primary revenue models. Instagram is unlikely to move away from being an advertising company, but given its massive scale and appeal, if it made minor changes that help us feel better about ourselves then that could have more global impact than any conventional mental health campaign.
Not only is it the right thing to do, but when a company becomes more wellbeing-positive they improve their relationships with their customers, add a competitive difference and become more attractive to talent.
While this might all feel like turning a supertanker round, there are three big reasons why I’m optimistic. The first is that this is a growing topic within technology circles, with projects like Designing Mindfulness and Time Well Spent becoming more and more popular. The second is that the public conversation about technology and mental health is such that there will be a point where people say enough is enough when it comes to their attention being written off as collateral damage in the digital economy.
The final, and perhaps most pivotal reason for optimism is that mindfulness has become incredibly popular among startups and big technology companies. That partly explains why it is so high-profile today. So there will be a point as more app designers, technologists and entrepreneurs become sufficiently literate in their own attention that they realise that mindfulness isn’t just limited to being a personal wellbeing tool, but if they let it impact the products they make then they can change the world – and this time for the good.