Digital Wellness in UX Series (Part I): Something Happened on the Way to Heaven

Mark Zuckerberg ...But Seriously Album Cover (Phil Collins Parody)

I have been working in the field of User Experience for two decades now. During this period of incredible technological advances, the field I passionately cherish has come a long way. When I first graduated from UC Irvine with my Human-Computer Interaction Master’s degree, just before Facebook emerged, it was virtually impossible to explain to people what I did without them glazing over with confused looks on their faces: “So you program computers, right?” I would reply, “Well, not exactly. I am like a lobbyist or an advocate for the user. My job is to empathize with ’the user’ to better understand their needs.” You could imagine the blank stares and crickets heard at the bar during those awkward first dates of my younger years.

Fortunately, the world has dramatically changed and “user-friendly” has now become a household term. We’ve seen the rise of powerful, sensor-rich touchscreen devices, like the iPhone and Apple Watch, that even a baby can understand how to use. IoT devices, like smart TVs and Nest thermostats, are rapidly becoming common in countless homes. Even more impressive is that an average person can usually configure and set these devices up on their own. Many people spend most of their day in web browsers, using universal, rich Internet applications, such as Google Docs that work more smoothly than their heavy desktop counterparts that require long, involved installation processes, constant manual updates, license keys, and only work on certain OS platforms. Immersive VR and AR games are finally being taken seriously and gaining traction. Then, of course, there is the meteoric rise of social media and many-to-many content publishing. Suddenly, with no real technical expertise required, everyone can have a voice, and anyone can theoretically “go viral” and instantly become famous.

The common thread that runs through these breathtaking advances is indeed an irresistible user experience; and that is why these technologies are capturing our imaginations, while dramatically transforming our everyday lives. Apps have become so easy to download, install, and learn, that UX is almost taken for granted these days. Users no longer have the patience or the attention span to sit down and read instruction manuals. They just expect it to intuitively make sense and do what they want it to do, as fast as possible.

Based on this impressive body of work over the past 15 years, you might think that UX professionals, like myself, would be celebrating and patting ourselves on the back. Mission accomplished, right? Well, not so fast…

When I was a rookie UX designer, I naively believed I could improve lives and solve complex human problems by simply designing an interface that was “easy to use,” validated through a handful of usability testing sessions. However, all of us are now quickly learning that the equation is not that simple. In fact, making certain features too easy to use can ironically cause more harm to people than good, especially when it encourages addictive or anti-social behavior. Nowhere is this more glaring than in social media.

As human beings, we require strong, positive relationships with others in order to thrive, but interacting via online social media is qualitatively different and less fulfilling than spending time with others in-person. In its current form, social media does not encourage meaningful activities with those we care about most, and it certainly is not perceived by users as a viable tool to engage in this manner. Instead, it inherently leads to more sedentary, passive engagement with virtual strangers. After Snapchat’s recent widely panned redesign, one user exasperatedly proclaimed, “I don’t wanna see strangers’ stories, I use it to interact with IRL friends not the entire planet. The new story design is dumb. It makes no sense!” For all of the idyllic self-expression and true democracy that social media pioneers originally promised us, our online worlds have transitioned from calm, utilitarian digital libraries to an extremely loud and chaotic dance club; a club full of distracting shiny objects, dopamine-infused stimulation, endless barrages of meaningless choices, and an unquenchable thirst for validation and approval.

There is now a mountain of evidence that the interaction mechanisms involved in surfing the Internet, especially on social media websites, breed addiction and unhealthy habits. Social comparison is magnified on these platforms and this can lead to a damaged self-esteem (Shakya & Christakis, 2017). Lest we forget that Mark Zuckerberg’s prequel to Facebook was a Hot or Not clone called Facemash, which harvested photos of Harvard students from the web and arranged them side by side, asking users to rate which one was more attractive. Social comparison couldn’t be any more magnified than that!

Facebook doesn’t even dispute the harmful mental health impact that their product has on its users. They openly acknowledge these issues, but attribute them to “passively consuming information,” and disingenuously suggest that the solution is to simply engage and interact more. On the surface, this reveals a startling lack of awareness of how their UX design enables unhealthy behavior in the first place. However, if we dig deeper, it becomes even more disturbing. It turns out that they knew exactly what they were doing. Chamath Palihapitiya, the former VP of user growth at Facebook openly admits, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works. No civil discourse, no cooperation, misinformation, mistruth” (Levin, 2017). Ex-Facebook president, Sean Parker, confirmed that he and Zuckerberg knew all along their product was exploiting human psychological vulnerability. Today, he laments, “It literally changes your relationship with society, with each other. It probably interferes with productivity in weird ways. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains” (Solon, 2017).

Facebook’s laissez faire statements also blatantly contradict recent studies that indicate engaging in any kind of social media activities is significantly associated with degradations in self-reported physical, mental, and spiritual health. Whether Liking posts, clicking on article links, or producing new posts, wellbeing comes down to overall quantity of use rather than quality of use. Moreover, using asynchronous social media makes us believe we are engaged in meaningful social interactions, despite the fact that its overall effects are materially different than face-to-face offline interactions (Shakya & Christakis, 2017). This is analogous to the impact of fake sugar on the body. It can cause a heightened metabolic response because it tricks our bodies into believing calories and nutrients are being consumed when they are actually not, thus leading to weight gain and other issues.

It is important to point out that these problem are in no way exclusive to Facebook. Several other major social media platforms have been shown to have a similar negative impact on body image, sleep disturbance, anxiety, depression, and loneliness, while also being connected to cyber-bullying (Campbell, 2017). These are the unintended consequences of a “wild west” information and communication system, powered by infinite streams of anonymous user-generated content, and magnified by an unfathomably large network effect. My UX colleagues and I have thus far failed to adequately address design flaws in these systems that are causing real, irreparable harm to people (Solon, 2017). Instead, UX designers have been co-opted and coerced into prioritizing features intended to make a platform more addictive, because their employer’s metric of success is active users who continuously login and stay in the app as long as possible. Of course, these goals are tied to an ad-based business model, which requires stealing users’ attention, while keeping them scrolling and clicking so they can be presented with increasingly more sponsored content.

Our instinctive biology should not be casually used as a weapon against us in the name of marketing and advertising. Children are especially vulnerable to this type of manipulation. It is simply not ethical to hack their neurophysiology through irresponsibly-designed, addictive interaction patterns, such as infinite scroll, unhelpful notifications, and gamification without a clear user benefit or purpose. Maintaining your streak in Snapchat for hundreds of days may be great for the company’s active user metrics, VC stakeholders, and advertisement sponsors, but what does encouraging this obsessive-compulsive behavior actually do for you? In reality, it incentivizes the propagation of junk/spam content, leading to endless distractions and wasted hours, across the entire user network.

Many people have even begun declaring social media to be an unregulated public health crisis, similar to the early days of tobacco or pharmaceuticals. Politicians and corporate leaders have recently responded in the only way they know how, touting personal responsibility and education, while proposing new laws that impose age restrictions for social media access. Of course, we’ve seen this story played out before. Campbell (2017) states, “It’s important to recognize that simply ‘protecting’ young people from particular content types can never be the whole solution. We need to support young people so they understand the risks of how they behave online, and are empowered to make sense of and know how to respond to harmful content that slips through filters.” In other words, these are knee-jerk political reactions to the symptoms, but the proposed interventions in no way address the root problem: the design of the product itself.

To say the least, all of this has truly created an uncomfortable, existential crisis for UX professionals, such as myself. We’ve been trained to loyally follow and evangelize the user-centered design (UCD) process. We put our faith in this process, believing this whole time that we were truly doing right by the user: empathizing with their needs, putting ourselves in their shoes, tailoring a solution that brilliantly addresses their pain points and makes their daily tasks easier, thus leaving them fulfilled, delighted, and devoid of frustration. We convinced the world that design thinking would change the world by empowering every user in awe-inspiring, fantastical ways.

From a business standpoint, we were indeed wildly successful, and absolutely correct in our methodological fervor. There is no doubt that we made a lot of people quite rich. Companies recognized as UX Leaders grossly outperform their peers. According to Forrester’s Customer Experience Index, from 2007 to 2014, Customer Experience (CX) leaders had a cumulative total return of 107.5%, while the S&P 500 had a cumulative total return of 72.3%. Conversely, CX laggards ended up with a total return of just 27.6%. That is 45 points lower than the broader market and 80 points lower than the CX leaders. A stock market index developed by the Design Management Institute showed that design-led companies outperformed the Standard & Poor’s index by 228% over 10 years.

However, it’s hard to fathom that these irresistible, game-changing web products we lovingly created, under the guise of connecting the world, have also contributed to so much pain and suffering: addiction, broken families, damaged relationships, shattered self-esteem, depression, isolation, cyber-bullying, violence, sexual assaults, and even death. This is the cognitive dissonance that employees of Facebook and Uber are facing right at this moment. Once proud and immensely satisfied with their jobs, a significant number are now seriously considering selling their personal stock and jumping ship to another company. Is this also what the people who proudly designed the adorable and beloved McDonald’s Happy Meal felt like, once they discovered that their gorgeous, painstakingly packaged brand experience was really just a disguised exploitative mechanism, using toys to lure poor, innocent children toward an inevitable, miserable future of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease?

My own personal UX career has certainly been a wild ride. As I look back on the impact I had on the world, I am immensely proud of so many projects I led or contributed to. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work on an IBM Interactive grant project for the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, MA. There we built an immersive, captivating interactive web experience that enables and encourages citizens to explore the historical records and artifacts from this important and turbulent time in American history through which President Kennedy led our country. It was designed to “promote a greater appreciation of America’s political and cultural heritage, the process of governing, and the importance of public service.” I also spent 5+ years researching and designing NaviNet Open, to improve the challenging work lives of close to one million healthcare professionals and the 47 million patients that they care for every day. However, there are also projects that I have much more mixed feelings about, working on systems that make it far too easy for processed junk food companies to tweak their recipes just enough in order to present deceiving health claims to their customers or encourage shoppers to purchase additional items that they simply don’t need.

All these past experiences have culminated into the forging of this newfound UX perspective. Working on my graduate program in Media Psychology, I’ve intimately learned about the tremendous hope and promise, as well as the incredible harm, that digital media has introduced into our society. This has left me inspired and well-equipped, as a seasoned UX leader, to take on a daunting, important new challenge of making the user experiences I architect more efficient, intentional, and health-centric. Emerging from the ashes of all this social media fallout, Internet addiction, and digital overwhelm, UX professionals must play the role of the phoenix, as we pioneer this burgeoning field of Digital Wellness. In order to truly be successful, it is paramount that we seek out new allies in this critical mission to calm our technology, restore attentional capacity, engender meaningful experiences, as well as propagate social harmony and fulfilling discourse.

In this article, it may seem like I have painted quite a bleak picture of the current state of UX. However, despite all of this intense internal reflection about the more controversial products and services my UX brethren and I have complicity helped birth into the world, I have never been so invigorated, inspired, or excited about the future of UX and where it could be heading. Therefore, consider this a rallying cry to reclaim, redefine, and elevate our field to a level that will allow us all to continue feeling proud and fulfilled in the work that we do. Let us restore web life balance by building apps, devices, and services with simplified technology and features that demand less, not more manual attention from us. Let us leverage AI to silently empower and facilitate everyday activities rather than relentlessly exploit our psychological vulnerabilities or very human nature.

Stay tuned for Part II of my Digital Wellness in UX series where I will talk more specifically about how we can refine, evolve, and improve upon the tiered UX model that our field’s founding forefathers laid out for us over a decade ago. In the meantime, I encourage you to take a few minutes and listen closely to Phil Collin’s 1990 hit, “Something Happened on the Way to Heaven.” Those of you familiar with this popular song from back in the day may be eerily surprised at how the lyrics take on a whole new prescient meaning within the context of this article’s content. I look forward to your impressions, reactions, and comments!