The Attention Web

In an excellent article on Medium, Jesse Weaver skillfully articulates the tradeoffs of using free tech products:

It’s the Faustian bargain we’ve all struck. In exchange for a “free” web, we give you our time.

Paying for products in the currency of our time – our attention – profoundly shapes their design.

Instead of streamlined experiences, filled with quality content, we’ve seen the rise of clickbait headlines, listicles and ad saturated UIs that are slow, cumbersome and sometimes down right unusable, especially on mobile screens.

While these outcomes are incredibly frustrating, the more notable issue is how it colors our approach as designers:

The drive for attention has also influenced the way we talk about products. As designers we’re expected to make things “habit forming”. Get people “hooked”. And turn monthly “users” into daily “users”. The only other people I know who call their customers users are drug dealers.

As I wrote in 2013:

Simply put, most digital products are designed with a bias towards eliciting as much use as possible.

Jesse continues:

This rhetoric has made companies more and more aggressive about pushing their agenda into our lives. Floods of emails, push notifications, text notifications, daily reminders, and weekly digests are the norm in the attention web.

“Pushing their agenda into our lives.” This is the phrase that gives me pause. To take someone’s time is to take something extremely precious.

Time is more precious than money. Money is a renewable resource. Everyone always has the potential to make more money. Time, on the other hand, is finite. There are only so many hours in a day. By definition, you only have so much time to give.

Therein lies the conflict. An ethical approach to product design results in providing as much value as possible in as little time as possible. But that’s impossible to achieve, when the viability of our businesses depend on providing as much value as possible in as much time as possible.

We aren’t creating human-centered experiences, we are creating attention-centered experiences, which puts the needs of the business squarely ahead of the needs of the customer.

In 2013, I asked:

As digital product designers, what is the measure of our responsibility to encourage moderation (not just maximum use and profit) in the way we design our products to be used?

What would that look like – to provide as much value as possible in as little time as possible? Imagine what the world would be like if all products were designed this way.