Over the last 20 years or so, the topic of digital addiction has been the focus of many research studies and debates, with the Centre for Internet Addiction founded in the US as early as 1995. However today, despite numerous studies comparing the symptoms of the many types of digital addiction (be that smartphones, social media or the internet in general) to those of drug and alcohol addiction (depression, isolation, anxiety), it is still not officially recognised by the World Health Organisation.
There has however been a significant shift in consumer mindset, which is driving change in big tech. Digital experiences in all sectors have been designed to encourage frequent, repeated use; to create ‘sticky’ moments; to create that dopamine release that keeps users coming back and spending hours engaging with a site, app or platform. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings was quoted in 2017 as saying Netflix’s main competition is sleep. In the so-called ‘attention economy’, every digital experience we have is focused on driving increased time spent, money spent, or data shared. Consumers are increasingly aware of the tactics employed in digital design to drive this. From endless scrolls to auto-playing next content, there is a huge range of dark patterns out there which drive the behaviour intended from a business perspective, but create an ethical question around the impact on the individual user.
Take Instagram as an example. What started out as a photo sharing platform designed to connect communities around content has been quoted in several studies as having the most negative impact on young people’s mental health. The explosion of influencer marketing on the platform and blurred lines between sponsored content and real life create an unhealthy culture of comparison and unrealistic expectations. Whilst Instagram have made improvements, introducing clearer tagging for sponsored content or notifying users when they’re ‘all caught up’ to limit scrolling, there is still a long way to go. The recent trial of removing ‘likes’ is the most recent attempt to reduce pressure on users but is this a genuine attempt to improve the user experience of a response to increasing backlash in recent years?
At a macro level, people are increasingly looking for sustainable products, services and experiences. They want to know the impact of their consumption on the environment, on local communities, on their physical health and increasingly on their mental health and wellbeing. People know that attention is a scarcity, and in response are switching off and choosing who to give that attention to more consciously. Their needs have evolved from transactional to requiring a more emotional connection to justify the attention given. From full-blown digital detoxes to deleting apps periodically / permanently or turning off notifications, digitally savvy users are trying to take back control.
Given the proliferation of digital and its intrusion in every element of our lives, businesses have a responsibility to design not just for business results, but based on individual and societal impact. Consumer sentiment, along with a few big political scandals, has triggered a response with big tech platforms starting to take action. Google have introduced their wellbeing programme allowing users to limit notifications, set timers and grayscale their background to limit colourful distractions, whilst the Google Assistant provides a bedtime routine allowing you to set your alarm and check the weather with voice rather than on the screen. Apple’s Screen Time allows users to track usage, set timers and limit notifications. Facebook’s well documented algorithm change to the news feed promised to focus on driving not ‘time spent’ but ‘time well spent’ on the platform, prioritising community over advertising revenue. Media outlets are increasingly moving towards paywalls, potentially limiting the focus on clickbait. Bumble has introduced a ‘snooze’ feature, allowing users to let others know they’re on a digital detox, a first in online dating platforms. On top of this, a whole digital-free industry is emerging - digital detox retreats, treatment programmes, and apps to help you switch off.
But are these steps enough? Are they really going to drive different behaviour or are they a superficial response to much deeper rooted issues? How do businesses take meaningful action for the long term? It’s not enough to leave it up to the consumer alone to fight the addictive behaviours digital design often intends to create.
A significant mindset shift is required, which starts with reconsidering the metrics by which success is measured. Businesses across sectors must start thinking about metrics which are specific to the wellbeing of the user rather than the traditional digital growth metrics. The closest thing widely used today is NPS or CSAT - these are however still focused largely on the business, rather than the user and tend to focus on a specific interaction or touchpoint making it difficult to get a holistic sense of the users’ experience across an end to end journey. Retailers are starting to consider new metrics for success within physical stores tied to experience rather than just sales, the same needs to evolve for digital experience. What if there were a metric to truly understand how people were feeling in their day to day digital interactions? Take the fitness world as an example, F45’s 8 week challenge app asks the user to comment on how they’re feeling each time they log a day’s activities. Could this approach be used across retail, media or any other sector? A quick prompt to ask users how they’re feeling which over time would allow a business to see peak times of digital contentedness or burnout and design the experience accordingly.
The bottom line is, businesses must start with truly understanding their users and applying design to every element of their strategy. Many businesses have paid lip service to being ‘customer-first’ for many years however, in reality, this is not often the case. To live this, businesses must have a clear idea of their own long-term purpose and values as well as the different behavioural segments they serve. They must focus on designing micro-experiences that support those segments across different channels, under different contexts. For example the beauty addict who wants to be up to speed with the latest and greatest products and be seen as an expert amongst peers expects a very different digital interaction to the functional beauty consumer who is looking for the safety and trust of products used time and time again. Snackable Instagram content with easy purchase and repost links might work for the former, whilst the latter might be more interested in integrated ratings and reviews on a core site or app.
Within those experiences, businesses have a responsibility to make people more aware of their habits, surface usage in obvious ways, give people the option to switch off. Bumble’s snooze option is a good example of this, recognising that a significant portion of their user base are busy young professionals at risk of burnout. Acting responsibly and transparently is the only way to build long term trust with consumers. This becomes even more critical as new channels and touchpoints like Voice or AR emerge and become more dominant. That same beauty addict can now not only engage with core digital sites and social platforms, but can ask Alexa or Siri for voice notifications when a new product drops or is selling out fast, or spend more time creating AR beauty tutorials, trying out products quicker and easier to share with a community. With even more options for consumers to be connected, it is vital that brands and businesses find a way to support rather than overload them. It is vital for consumer wellbeing but, importantly for long-term business success. Good design, with the consumer at the heart, drives good business and long term profitability.
In addition to shifts required in business, there is also a need for wider societal change. Regulation must catch up to help protect users, and we’re starting to see this with the introduction of GDPR and the proposed DETOUR Act in the US which proposes the introduction of a standards body to monitor and limit the use of deceptive design practices for large online platforms. Education must support users at a young age to understand the digital ecosystem in which they live. Parents have a responsibility to educate and support their kids. And importantly, as individuals, we have a responsibility to manage our own digital presence more consciously. The benefits digital has created for us are extensive - our smartphones make the mundane tasks quick, easy and convenient. As a result, we often switch off and expect the basics to be done for us. As individuals we must make more considered choices to ensure we are benefiting from rather than being harmed by the digital ecosystem surrounding us. Only then would we be able to take advantage of the higher level promise of digital technologies: information and knowledge at our fingertips, instant connection with the world around us, augmented capacity for enjoyment, productivity, and ultimately wellbeing.
Dawn McKerracher is managing director of This Place