Mobile Developer Calls for ‘Ethics by Design’

By: Lee Rickwood

February 3, 2017

There’s a reason you can’t do without your smartphone.

More than 76 per cent of Canadians now own one. We spend an hour a day more using them this year than a couple of years ago. We call them indispensable and we sleep with them by our bed.

Smartphone addiction is no accident: it’s by design.

Mobile Developer Calls for ‘Ethics by Design’ to Combat Smartphone Addiction

Time Well Spent founder Tristan Harris

That’s what Tristan Harris says. The former Google exec and product developer wants the tech industry and developer community to bring ethical design to the never-ending stream of new digital products and connected services.

There are business priorities, technological opportunities and human foibles at play, but Harris says a new approach to the design and development of such products can help us better manage our habits.

Business priorities include the need for companies to sell more products, promote more services and get more audience engagement time with their on-screen ads and brand reinforcement initiatives.

The more time people spend on or with or near a product, the more money can be made.

Mobile Developer Calls for ‘Ethics by Design’ to Combat Smartphone Addiction

Mobile application developers know how to make use of human psychological and physiological principles.

Harris talks about concepts like persuasive technology design, which encourages developers to make use of well-known human psychological and physiological principles to get consumers to use tech more often, and for longer periods of time.

Harris gives as one example the technological opportunities developers utilize to create very popular communication apps.

When logging onto Twitter, he points out, there’s a slight but perceptible delay before the user gets the number of new notifications displayed.

That’s on purpose, Harris said in an interview with the U.S. public television network program NewsHour: “It’s called a variable schedule reward.” The time delay helps build a sense of anticipation in the user, he explained, and the notifications (when they come) are the reward that’s offered.

“And so you become more addicted to checking it again the next time.”

Humans are easily addicted. Medical practitioners, marketers, product developers and politicians are among those who have long known about ways to take advantage of the fact.

Our bodies release neuro-chemicals in response to external stimuli, and dopamine is one chemical we generate as a kind of reward to ourselves for doing, finding, having or being something good.

As we search and scan our screens for little bits of information that match our preconceptions and expectations, for example, our bodies reward us when we’re successful, and our desire for more such little rewards is increased.

That trigger is multiplied many times over in today’s hyper-connected world, as author and technology commentator Nicholas Carr has also pointed out. Gadget-loving users have regular and repeated interactions with their device, often without realizing that could be hundreds of times a day!

Harris calls the tricks used to exploit these human characteristics “the race to the bottom of the brain stem” and his new initiative aims to combat the trend to get and maintain people’s attention at all costs.

He’s launched Time Well Spent in order to change the development conversation from maximizing engagement time to maximizing positive improvements to people’s lives.

The movement aims to change business priorities and incentives so digital media companies compete to enhance our lives, not just grab eyeballs. He wants the development community to invent new interfaces that help us to make room for what really matters, and to give users truly empowering tools and settings to manage all our media and devices.

There is much we as users can do to manage our time more wisely, Harris says, and there is much the development community can do to help us do so.

Of course, there’s an app for that!

 

Mobile Developer Calls for ‘Ethics by Design’ to Combat Smartphone Addiction

A new approach to the design and development of smartphone apps can help us better manage our digital habits.

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