Best Practices

Three Practical Tips for Designing in an Era of Digital Fatigue

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Connected blog

Remember the time when you were first connected to the internet? One of the first things I did was to do a search on Yahoo just to see what comes up. I can still remember how ecstatic I felt gaining access to an infinite amount of information. Fast forward to today, every new product out there is lurking to get your attention and cram even more “things” into your busy lives.

Why people uninstall mobile apps

With this has come an increase in our collective awareness of digital wellbeing and screen time control and the desire to cut back on device usage. As a product builder, building a successful product that stands out from all the noise is changing how I define success and impact. This shift has seen me dive deeper into the product community for answers and here I’m sharing the insights I have gained about designing for digital wellbeing.

1. Knowing the current landscape of our mental capacity

Smartphones have now been a part of our lives long enough that the majority of us have had a chance to adopt and form our own behavior. On average, most smartphone users only use nine applications a day. The habitual behavior of checking on the same apps over and over is called automatic behavior.

On the flip side of automatic behaviors, there are reflective behaviors. Reflective behaviors are behaviors that allow our minds to explore new experiences and seek out new things that will become new automatic behaviors.

For instance, I recently downloaded Tik Tok to see what the hype was all about. It definitely didn’t disappoint and I found myself flipping through content. However, a couple of weeks passed and I didn’t reopen the app once. I subconsciously went back to my daily routine and Tik Tok would have been too much a disruptor to fit into my established ritual. You know the saying, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks? It’s not because we are not capable of learning something new, it’s the disruption to our current behavior that holds them back.

The public awareness of our digital wellbeing is a signal that people are hitting their digital capacity.

Digital capacity

As a result, it’s harder for us to justify the use of new tools. Therefore, when releasing a new product, it’s important to think about your target audience’s cognitive capacity for what you are building, not just their desire for it. Unlike a competitor analysis, this allows product builders to take it a step further and analyze the mental capacity available on the job that your product promises to deliver. Now, this does not mean every new digital product has no room for success. Depending on your target audience, their digital capacity is going to be different. Which is why it’s important when speaking to your participants, ask questions around their current cognitive load such as:

  • Is there something you want to do less/do more of in your day-to-day?
  • When was the last time you installed a new app? What app is it and how often do you use it now?

This would help you form an assumption where your product is placed within these metrics and help ease adoption by:

  • Replace load: Providing users another option to perform something that they are already doing.
  • Increase load: Adding towards users’ current established cadence.
  • Decrease load: Helping relieve their cognitive stress of digital interactions.
Replace, increase, or decrease load

So what if your product does fall into a high digital interaction space? Does it mean you should throw in the towel? Does it mean that the chances of success are low? No, because digital solutions are not the only path for product builders.

2. Behavioral Design

Over the past decade, product builders have been very focused on the transition to digital. We have come to rely on technology to be the solution to a lot of things. Smart toaster, Smart water bottle, Smart fridge, internet of things…

I am not saying these are not the right solution, but when I spoke with Zach Zobary (senior behavioral designer at Scotiabank Digital Factory), he inspired me with his work on solutioning outside of the lens of tech. Zach reminded me that building an impactful product is a process and not an event. It’s exciting to design something that creates an impact immediately. But to get there, it takes time, it means doing less, but better. One way of getting there is to use the maintain/shift/inspire framework. Here is an example of it in action:

Opower is a company that is set out to fight climate change by tackling the problem of energy waste. Where most companies are creating products like EV cars, LED lights, Solar panels, which requires consumers to take big actions to go out of their way and purchase a new product, Opower focuses on maintaining current user’s behavior and restructuring how electric companies sent out their bills. Opower has done this by updating the utility bill to illustrate people’s energy consumption compared to their neighbors.

Opower example

This alone shifted people’s behavior to use less energy. Over time as they saw their monthly report and process, they were inspired to sustain this. This initiative has helped save four hundred billion KwH of energy as of 2014, enough energy to replace the Hoover Dam. They didn’t make a new product to accomplish this — they made a huge impact without increasing our cognitive load.

What I am trying to say here is, we are product builders and our goal is to solve human problems. Our solutioning shouldn’t live only within the world of technology. Viewership, ratings, and likes are so hardwired into our thinking that businesses build their goals around them. But sometimes the most impactful solution isn’t digital.

3. The emotional piggy bank

Shawna Wolverton, SVP of product at Zendesk, gave a talk around the concept of an emotional piggy bank at Elevate Product 2019. Shawna’s definition of the emotional piggy bank is a way for us to empathize with our users that’s in a deeper way than user interviews, field research, diary studies, etc. Shawna explains the piggybank as this deep relationship built through meaningful conversations that provides opportunities for both builder and user to gain empathy for each other.

“Sometimes, you might blow it, the feature that you design that you think is amazing and will delight your customer, turns out it might frustrate them. But when you invest in these deep meaningful relationships with the people who use your product, it pays a tremendous amount of trust and dividends.”

Shawna’s talk made me re-evaluate what a successful product is. As product builders, we often think about the hierarchy of needs. A product needs to be functional, reliable, usable, and delightful. Delightful is always a hard one to wrap my mind around because it’s an emotional metric that isn’t easily measurable. But what Shawna is really doing when she speaks to an audience of professionals is delivering a delightful experience through empathy. It’s a way for Zendesk to put a human face in front of her customers, and for their customers to put a human face to them.

I think this in-person interaction is becoming more impactful with the advances in technology. Don’t get me wrong — there are clear benefits to chatbots, self-checkouts, and social media; however, the increased awareness of screen time control is the byproduct of the desire to have these deeper relationships back into our life.

Human interactions

In the podcast Wireframe, the hosts discussed how patients are losing trust towards their doctor due to the lack of eye contact and face-to-face conversations, which reduces the overall experience. This is caused by the amount of time the doctor is looking at the computer screen filling in information. I quote …

“She (the doctor) is not working for the patient anymore, she feels like she is working for the machine. This illustrates that the work of a designer is changing. Up until recently, you have almost always been designing for a screen. And the goal is to get a person to look at the screen more and more…. But that is changing. It has become clear that it’s better for user to not be looking at a screen.”

Sometimes what makes or breaks a product is this emotional piggy bank. Our role as product builders is just like the doctor and patient scenario. We are in the shoes of the doctor and even though we can do our job better through technology and building something usable and desirable, we must not overlook the importance of the customer’s emotional relationship with your product.

Conclusion: Building better products

At Connected, our CEO Mike Stern often remind us of these two quotes:

“Each year more than 30,000 new consumer products are launched and 80% of them fail.” – Clayton Christensen

“And out of the $4 trillion global technology spend that does successfully make it to production, ‘at least 67% of those efforts are either scrapped or end up being underwhelming with low-to-negative ROI.'” – Gianna Giacomelli

I am not a math wizard but that’s approximately 6.6% that succeed and that’s 28,000+ new products each year that are either scrapped or they are low-to-negative ROI. To design for product impact, your product needs to be part of the 6.6%. This means building not just a tool, but a product with a face (figuratively), that fits into the behavioral landscape, strives to improve your user’s life and not distract from it, and inspires positive behavioral change. In simple terms: A more humane solution.

This article is just the tip of the iceberg on this subject. If you are interested in learning more about the attention economy, ethical design, and the “time well spent” movement, I would highly encourage checking out Humane tech and Tristan Harris’s video.

With that, I will leave you with one more quote from Ian Spalter:

“We live in this world with so much information that we need to give ourselves the space to experience in an unmediated way. To be in a place and use your natural sense with no tools. It clears out a lot of those noises. Zoom out and get that clarity of perspective makes it one of the best that we are able to do. This gives me the capacity to design and build better products.”