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Reviewing the Idea of Ethical Design: Is Technology Hijacking People’s Minds?

“How do you ethically shape the thoughts and actions that will appear in a billion people’s minds today?”

That’s the question Tristan Harris, a former Design Ethicist at Google, is currently trying to figure out — or at least make everyone think about when it comes to designing technology, software, advertising, and apps ethically. Harris, called the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” spends his time researching what persuades and hijacks a person’s mind, especially in the context of technology, but he also works to “demonstrate how better incentives and design practices will create a world that helps us spend our time well.”

The Problem With Current Tech Designs

While technology is meant to better our lives, it’s also designed to keep us engaged and hooked. Harris wants us all to understand the power technology has over us — thanks to the way its software is designed:

“We check our phones more than 150 times per day. Knowledge workers spend a third of their day in email. Teenagers (aged 14-17) send 4,000 texts/month, or every six minutes awake. The more we live by our screens and spend time there, the more we live by their design choices. That’s a lot of power. Just like a city shapes the lives of its inhabitants, software shapes the lives of it users. Therefore software is a domain of great responsibility.” – Tristan Harris

If we focus on the type of tech Harris refers to, or “advertising-fueled technology companies,” we start to see how software written for things like social media are designed in a way to keep users hooked. In that context, think about the way you spend your time on social media. Do you keep watching YouTube or Facebook videos well after your first intended video, thanks to autoplay? Do Instagram notifications make you jump back on the app, the second after you finally leave? Do you find yourself scrolling through Facebook or Pinterest for far too long? Do Snapchat conversation streaks consume your time? Does instant, breaking news seems to be everywhere you look? Finally, do you find yourself constantly refreshing feeds to get the latest news, likes, emails, and content?

If you’re nodding your head in silent agreement, don’t worry, we’ve all been there. What’s important to understand, however, is that it’s all designed in a way to keep you there — to keep you hooked. And once one tech company lands on a software design that works — a.k.a. keeps users addicted — it doesn’t take too long before the design is adopted by others. In the end, tech companies wind up “trapped in a race for whatever gets our attention,” and users wind up spending more and more time that may not be well spent.

For Harris, the real question or problem with all of this is, what does that do to us — the people using the technology? Is it ethical or unethical persuasion that keeps us hooked? Are these designs created in a way that truly puts people’s best needs first? Are people happy about all the time they spend on a device or using technology? Finally, does design need ethics?

Is Technology Hijacking Our Minds?

According to Time Well Spent, a nonprofit movement headed by Harris, the way technology is currently designed doesn’t have people’s best interests in mind. In fact, he says current tech designs find ways to exploit psychological vulnerabilities that influence people to do things without them even realizing it — very much like a magician. As Harris describes it, technology is hijacking our minds (here’s how), and by knowingly keeping us glued to screens, technology is (likely negatively) changing the fabric of society, political discourse, and our children. Here’s a brief breakdown of the 10 hijacks that Harris says are used to attain your attention:

  1. Control the menu; control the choices. This creates an illusion of free choice.  
  2. Put a slot machine in a billion pockets (your apps!). Rewards are good for business.
  3. Induce the fear of missing something important (FOMSI).
  4. Create the need to attain and keep social approval.
  5. Produce social reciprocity (tit-for-tat) scenarios.
  6. Turn the experience into bottomless bowls: infinite feeds and autoplay.
  7. Use instant interruption vs. “respectful” delivery.
  8. Bundle the user’s reasons for visiting with their reasons.
  9. Make choices inconvenient.
  10. Forecasting errors and “foot in the door” strategies.

Creating Ethical Persuasion in Design

The real problem isn’t the technology or the apps themselves, and Harris doesn’t believe in abandoning technology altogether. The real problem is the way in which software is designed to keep us on technology for longer periods of time. And, while keeping us on devices is great for the tech company or the business we see in an advertisement, there’s evidence that spending great quantities of time here isn’t so great for humanity. For instance, these charts highlighting the percentage of people happy or unhappy about their time spent in apps show that most people are happier when their daily average time spent on an app or device is significantly lower. After seeing this, you may think the answer is simple: limit your time on apps and devices and you’ll be happier. The problem is, not everyone will have that kind of resolve, and by not changing the design, plenty of minds — whether in this generation or the next — will still get “hijacked.” Then there’s the other side of the coin: How will tech companies refrain from using addictive designs, knowing that could mean less user time, and how will businesses feel about fewer people seeing their online advertisements?

Harris’ answer is design ethics, which includes starting the conversation about the following ethical design questions:

  • How do we make sure designers use the wisest moral operating system when making choices on our behalf?
  • How do they distinguish between what’s good for business and what’s good for society – or even navigate these situations clearly?
  • How do we align a designer’s goals with our goals for how we want to live life?
  • How do they catch and minimize unintended negative social and behavioral externalities?
  • How do we hold designers accountable for their influence over people’s choices?

Questions surrounding the benefit of businesses, software designers, and users are all important factors in the continuing development of Harris’ concept of ethical persuasion and ethical design. And, while any given solution may never be perfect, the most ideal solution may hold the answer to giving technology companies some kind of moral responsibility in their current or future designs — especially as it pertains to users’ behavior.

How Will You Spend Your Time?

Until Harris or others can “transform the race for attention by…demonstrat[ing] how better incentives and design practices will create a world that helps us spend our time well” it’s up to each of us to pay attention to how technology plays on our vulnerabilities and how much we let it. Conversely, we need to think about the businesses themselves that work hard to outshine their competitors with better technology, designs, advertisements, and marketing. As a digital marketing company, we understand a company’s need to go above and beyond their competitors — it’s not only good marketing, it’s survival as a business. But, what if the kind of designed marketing Harris is talking about was done in a way that empowered the user or made sure their experience was one of time well spent? What if technology valued our time and was designed in a way to help us live more freely by putting our values — not our impulses — first? What if the needs of the business and the quality of a user’s behavior were better aligned?

What do you think about Tristan Harris’ ideas on ethical, persuasive design? Do you think technology is hijacking our minds? How do you think technology businesses should change? Let us know in the comments!