Online Engagement (aka Designing a Slot Machine)

Making an impact online is all about engagement. According to Kara Swisher of “Recode Decode,” it’s often assumed that making an impact is positive. In an interview with Tristan Harris, Swisher says that in her experience, many of those involved in designing online engagement don’t give much thought to what type of impact they are making.

Tristan Harris left his job as a Design Ethicist at Google to lead Time Well Spent, a non-profit movement with the mission of “reclaiming our minds from the race for attention. Their goal is to look at how business models, user habits, and design can be changed to measure success by how much engagement benefits people’s lives, rather than just how much engagement is generated. The question for all involved in creating online engagement should be, “How do you ethically shape the thoughts and actions that will appear in a billion people’s minds today?”

Harris talks about how the experience of checking our phone is akin to playing a slot machine. The randomness and timing of what appears in our social media and news feed are deliberate to keep us hooked—just like those who are hooked on playing the slots. Research about addiction to gambling focuses on the psychological, biological, and morality of gambling addicts—but some studies have shown that the real problem may be the slot machines themselves. Contrary to what we may think about the allure of the thrill and risk associated with gambling, slot machines provide people with a false sense of safety and security. According to Harris, our experience with our apps is not much different—giving us a false sense of safety and security while presenting us with a multitude of opportunities to squander both time and money.

Graphic designers bear much of the responsibility for the design of our online experiences, and subsequently, also the consequences. We need to look at all the implications of our designs, and in the process, aim to answer some of Harris’ questions:

  • How do we make sure designers use the wisest moral operating system when making choices on our behalf?
  • How do they distinguish between what’s good for business and what’s good for society – or even navigate these situations clearly?
  • How do we align their design goals with our goals for how we want to live life?
  • How do they catch and minimize unintended negative social and behavioral externalities?
  • How do we hold designers accountable for their influence over people’s choices?


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