Digital Wellness in UX Series (Part II): Revisiting and expanding the Nielsen/Norman tiered UX model to build more sociable and responsible experiences

Last week, I took a deep dive and internally reflected on my rich experience over the past two decades as a UX professional, acknowledging some of the exciting wins we have collectively achieved, now that our discipline has finally become ingrained within the public sphere as an established, mature, and embedded specialty within most successful, modern companies. I also critically analyzed the current mess we find ourselves in with social media, focusing on the role that our own research and design work may have unfortunately played in all of it. I suggested that by complicity catering to a pervasive ad-based business model and a disingenuous, self-serving brand experience, some Silicon Valley-inspired UX professionals have lost their way as true advocates for the user. Not unlike fast food product formulators, we built addictive mechanisms that hack people’s neurochemistry, play on their obsessive insecurities, and exploit innate social tendencies, in order to create an illusory perception of desirability. Somehow we have managed to prioritize and perfect ease-of-use for malignant features that engender poor health, antisocial behavior, lack of focus, as well as feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety.

In this article, I re-evaluate a UX framework, established over a decade ago. Variants of this model have guided user experience work for many years. Now is a crucial time for us to scrutinize this tiered UX model that our field’s forefathers initially laid out for us within the context of where technology and society currently stand today. In a world now dominated by social media and ubiquitous personal devices that are always connected to the Internet, we must refine, evolve, and expand this model to responsibly address the long-term effects of these new technologies we create on our culture, society, and individual health.

Ten years ago, Jakob Nielsen and Don Norman, often considered the godfathers of UX, identified four key components of a great user experience: (a) Utility, (b) Usability, (c) Desirability, and (d) Brand Experience. Utility simply indicates that the product or service is perceived by the user to be useful and meet their needs. Usability means that it has an intuitive look and feel, allowing key tasks to be completed with efficiency, accuracy, and minimum confusion. Desirability is all about unique, exclusive value and making users crave your product. Finally, the Brand Experience takes Desirability a step further, and considers how much users identify and feel good about the overall product brand and company behind it.

Nielson/Norman original 4-tier diagram, circa 2008.

Since that time, the negative impacts of social media and today’s commercialized web have repeatedly exposed the missing ingredients in this UX recipe, starkly demonstrating why it is so critical that we now revise and improve upon this process.

Nielsen and Norman do emphatically state that “true user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features.” Following in this spirit, I am proposing that two additional tiers be added to their model: Sociability and Responsibility. I am introducing these tiers in order to directly address the public health crisis that social media and addictive applications have caused.

My revised UX Tier Model for 2018, adapted from the Nielsen/Norman Group (2008).

I define Sociability (SX) of a product, service, or device as enabling positive, meaningful social relationships and interactions. Social networking applications should enhance the lives of users by improving communication and increasing mutual understanding and empathy. It should provide safe spaces to express one’s self in a way that others can voluntarily choose to experience and benefit from. At the same time, users should easily be able to shield themselves from content, topics, and people that make them feel stressed, anxious, scared, or bad about themselves. Social comparison, trolling, peer pressure, superficial interactions, privacy violation, and damaging rumors should be inherently disincentivized and minimized through thoughtful, research-informed design. For instance, one should always have complete control over how their personal content is shared and syndicated across various platforms. When possible, apps and services should also aim to facilitate real-world, offline meet ups, free of excessive technological distraction. In other words, social products should make it easy to quickly plan and coordinate activities, but then immediately fade into the background. They should primarily focus on the people you actually spend time with and care about in real life, as opposed to strangers you met one time at a networking event. According to Levin (2017), today’s social media platforms take away from in-person engagement, redefining relationships as “being alone together.” Moreover, when a person finally does sit down for coffee or dinner with a good friend, he or she does not need to continue interacting with their entire digital network of friend connections at the same time. Consequently, UX designers should consider the impact of distracting features that encourage people to favor their phones over the people sitting directly across the table from them.

The Responsibility (RX) tier is both about personal digital wellness, as well as the impact of technology on the greater environment, society, and culture. Technology should make us feel good about ourselves in body, mind, and spirit. It should actively encourage productive, healthy behavior that is ultimately grounded in the real world, and supportive in helping people achieve their true goals and aspirations. It should promote civic participation, socially conscious activities, and provide constructive opportunities that are truly in a user’s best interests. Furthermore, it should be unwaveringly respectful of personal privacy and safety, as well as a user’s valuable attention, keeping irrelevant distractions to an absolute minimum.

Adding the Sociability and Responsibility tiers onto the Nielsen/Norman UX model can help User Researchers and UX/UI Designers build the next generation of apps in a much more holistic and conscientious manner. These tiers represent the infusion of public health and wellness into the Human-Centered Design Process, and it is a critical piece as we all become increasingly more intertwined and inseparable from our personal digital devices. As user advocates, it is paramount that we collectively develop innovative new ways to operationalize this upgraded, evolved UX model and process: one that continually monitors and analyzes the health and cultural impact that our technology will have on humans and society, once it is released into the wild and reaches critical mass.

Adopting an enhanced model such as the one I am proposing can be a great catalyst for change, but we UXers are still going to require help from brave, forward-thinking executive leaders and startup founders. If you are reading this and identify as such a leader, one of the ways you can combat the structural, institutional pressures that employees often face at more established technology companies, is by incorporating as a Public Benefit Corporation (PBC).

To be classified as a PBC, you are required to indicate a specific public benefit in your charter. A public benefit means “a positive effect (or reduction of negative effects) on one or more categories of persons, entities, communities or interests (other than stockholders in their capacities as stockholders) including, but not limited to, effects of an artistic, charitable, cultural, economic, educational, environmental, literary, medical, religious, scientific or technological nature.” You might be surprised to discover that there are numerous examples of successful, profitable companies who have registered as PBCs. In 2012, Patagonia was one of the first well-known companies to re-incorporate under a PBC structure. This helped them fulfill their longstanding mission of supporting social and environmental causes in a way that they never could if they simply retained their traditional Corporate designation. You can also read in CEO Perry Chen’s own words why over 100 shareholders and investors decided, 5 years ago, to convert Kickstarter into a PBC:

Becoming a PBC allowed us to unshackle from the extractive, inhuman, and societally unsustainable framework that compels companies to optimize for profit over everything.

Today, more and more of us are rejecting the religion of runaway capitalism. A real sense of what’s at stake when we live in a framework that compels profit at any cost is, thankfully, growing in the public dialogue.

The introduction of PBCs represented a seismic shift in corporate governance. They allow for the true legal existence of for-profit companies that “intend to produce public benefits, and to operate in a responsible and sustainable manner.

Perry Chen, CEO of Kickstarter

While these pioneering PBC conversion stories are quite inspiring, the good news is that the rest of us who are not founders and CEOs don’t have to wait for these top-down, structural reforms to occur in order to take the reigns and make a difference today. There are plenty of grassroots approaches we can proactively take as a united UX community, starting right now!

In fact, I encourage each and every one of you to band together and come up with creative ways to raise the standards for digital wellness across the entire tech industry. By first informing ourselves and each other, we can bring awareness of these important issues back to our own organizations in order to challenge our peers to become more accountable for the products that we all design, build, market, and sell to our users.

UX professionals, at any level, can set a strong example by helping to collectively develop a universal set of detailed Digital Wellness guidelines. Eventually, our consortium could even consider founding an independent, formally recognized institution to translate these best practices into a Digital Wellness Certification Program for devices, apps, websites, and services. This will allow companies to be publicly recognized for their noble efforts in building calmer, healthier, and more invisible technological solutions, while also proudly showcasing the strides they incrementally make.

Together, we can publish engaging educational content that synthesizes the latest emerging academic literature on how technology is impacting individuals, families, and our overall society. We can even conduct and disseminate our own research investigating the health, social, cultural, and political consequences of social media, mobile device usage, and today’s advertising-driven Internet engagement model.

In the end, taking proactive actions like the ones I am suggesting in this article provides product teams across all major industries the cover and freedom to faithfully adopt an extended, more holistic Human-Centered Design model. For those of us who have risen through the ranks to become UX Directors, VPs, and Chief Experience Officers, it is even more important that we opportunistically leverage our influence. We can do this by demonstrating a deep executive-level commitment to responsible, constructive design thinking that will ultimately lead to rich, meaningful human relationships; and a healthy lifestyle that is benevolently empowered by intelligent digital technology rather than dominated and exploited by it. There are plenty of bright, prominent leaders out there who are innovative enough to come up with profitable, sustainable business models that simultaneously empower their workforce to make a positive difference within the society that they operate. As I have highlighted with Patagonia and Kickstarter, we are witnessing an increasing number of real-life case studies to prove that is indeed a realistic and attainable goal.

In my next installment of this Digital Wellness in UX blog series, I will introduce a framework I call perpetual user research that borrows techniques and theoretical practices from epidemiology, sociology, and anthropology. It involves a suite of specific long-term user research methodologies that can be used to measure social experience and digital wellness over time, as we release our products and technologies into the wild and they become assimilated by society, as well as embedded into the fabric of our collective culture. This will allow UX practitioners to build and maintain meaningful relationships with our user communities while longitudinally following their journeys with our products and services over days, months, or even years. It will also enable us to monitor, identify, and swiftly respond to key opportunities, including social, political, health, safety, and environmental threats that are unintentionally catalyzed by the adoption of our technology.

Operationally, this is what I mean when I talk about responsible design for public benefit. As UXers, we can ensure that such statements don’t simply become superficial marketing taglines. What I am really advocating for is a core value system and a transparent code of honor that we commit to when it comes to digital wellness, similar to the Hippocratic Oath that doctors vow to take. I encourage all of you to join me in adopting this oath by doing everything you can to propagate these core values within your own organizations. Revolutions often start with a whisper, but we in UX have always been a tight-knit, collaborative community. Therefore, let’s see if we can make our voices heard as we collectively seek to re-balance our products, services, and technologies in a calmer manner that is more harmonious with quality human life and rich, fulfilling social relationships. See you all next time!