Distracted Simian Seeks Same

Apps, Experience Design

If you’ve ever tried to sit and meditate you’ll know how noisy your mind can be. Thoughts rise and fall like a whirl of leaves. They distract, dance and fade and never seem to settle. Some are close and discernible and others are distant and blurred. And they pass as quickly as they appear.

Our mobile devices mirror the whirl of our minds. We can switch from app to app with a twitch of our thumbs. We can choose from the 2 million apps that are out there now that promise to entertain us, inform us, connect us and we can still feel hollow and empty. Research shows us that social media can leave us feeling inadequate, the news confirms our anxieties and search, in fact, narrows our choices. But surprisingly, it isn’t due entirely to the content. The fault lies neatly at the foot of designer who has been motivated, many times unknowingly, to design for addiction. Following the influence of people like Nir Eyal(Hooked) and Charles Duhigg(The Power of Habit) and many others designers are playing in a pandora’s box of behavioral science and have learned how to design to addict.

The most notorious are the dating apps. With a flick you can peruse the profiles of thousands of people. By the time your subway goes from Astor Place to Grand Central you can scout a whole train full of prospects. All the while not noticing the person standing next to you who might have been your life long match. Following the popularity of Tinder, the dating app that invented the swipe, the most popular dating apps(Match, OKCupid, etc) have incorporated the same interface. Well suited for our thumb based mobile world the gesture of swipe right/swipe left does a disservice to those who seek a human connection. Like a game designed for twitch, think the addictive power of Fortnight, app designers hold the power of game design in high esteem and design their own apps accordingly. It’s not that you play the game, it’s that you keep playing the game. I believe that this effects the nature of relationships in the dating world and confirms our own internal noise and anxieties about connecting. I contend, that despite the early news of the power of dating apps and the current value of the digital dating world($3 billion in 2017, 49 million users and 7,500 different dating sites and apps catering to all sorts of tastes and desires) designers and developers must do better. Because we are so easily distractible, especially on mobile, designers need to design not to hook but to connect. By the time your subway travels from Astor Place to Grand Central there are at least dozens of people on your train who you might have missed. We have to unlearn the swipe and designers have to learn how to design to focus and slow down the interaction. Perhaps with the advent of more AI influenced and behaviorally based algorithms designer’s might be able to slow us down and help us find “the one”. But perhaps it is already too late and “the one” an outmoded cultural conceit better suited to pre-internet days. The challenge – and potential reward judging by the current market value of digital dating – is enormous. The need to connect in a deeply meaningful way is essentially human and any designer worth her weight in salt should be rising to the occasion