We just finished a primary election in California, and every day in the past month I’ve come home to 20 or more pieces of mail, almost none of them for me or anyone who lives in my house. That’s not entirely true — quite a few of them are addressed to members of my family, whether we recognize the sender or not; whether we consented to receive mail or not. I could just ignore the entire stack if it wasn’t the case that occasionally some birthday greeting or notice from the IRS turns up. That reality means that I have to spend time checking the whole stack for value before dumping it in the recycling bin. I wish this were an election-season problem only, but it’s not. Every holiday and fashion season brings its own flood of catalogs, flyers, and donation solicitations, never mind the postcards from real estate agents and the restaurant menus.
I picked up the phone for an unfamiliar number yesterday. For the third time this week, it was a Mandarin-speaking robot voice. I blocked the number and went on with my day. “Why would you pick up?” a friend asked. “I never do.” It just so happens that I’m a parent, so I do answer calls from unknown numbers in my area code, in case someone is calling about my kid. And I’m in the middle of a complicated work contract, so I could get calls from several places. I could let them all go to voicemail and do the filtering after the fact, but I have to do it one way or another.
I went to a website to buy a bra the other day. I’d been there before; it immediately served me a pop-up asking me to re-sign up for their email list because “we miss you”. I suppose they do; I unsubscribed intentionally after they sent me daily emails following my last purchase. I had to hunt for the X to close the pop-up, and then the site served an “are you sure”” message suggesting I didn’t like good deals. If you’re watching websites these days, you can guess what came next: a request to show me desktop notifications and track my location. I had to spend just a fraction of a second making sure I clicked the right option there. Just a fraction of a second for this site, but they all add up. Of course after I bought what I needed, there was a survey from the company in my inbox, wanting me to spend time giving feedback, specifically to convert my emotions (which they seemed to assume were strong) into a number on a scale chosen by them, so they could quantify how well they had done.
You might notice that I’m talking about burdens on my attention, but I haven’t mentioned social media or my smartphone. (I haven’t mentioned my email inbox either, or the three videos that autoplayed when I went to check out a story about the Warriors on a mainstream news site.) The robocalls could have come on my 2006 RAZR just as easily, except that marketers weren’t as brazen in ignoring the US Do Not Call Registry at the time. My active memory only stretches to the late 1970s, but I’m quite certain from personal experience that there are more corporate and organizational attempts to claim my attention than at any time in my life. Social media, with all its counts and updates, arrived in this environment as the icing on the overload cake.
The thing that’s important about these vast numbers of approaches is that they’re all trying to get me to engage with something, and I’ve made no indication to any of the approachers that I want to. They happen in total disregard of my preferences and motivations. This gets talked about a bit, but usually related to what I and other receivers should do about it. Except for social media, the people and companies responsible for all these distractions get a pass. I think it’s time for that to stop.
In the spirit of the great Kathy Sierra piece Your App Makes Me Fat, I’d like to shout from the rooftops that it’s not just the apps. And it’s not just that all these little distractions take up cognitive capacity that could be available for more will-power — they take up cognitive capacity that should be available for whatever I want. Fundamentally, my attention is mine to direct, and these little presumptions by outside forces amount to a significant tax, which I have not agreed to, on my ability to do that. I think we need a word for it, and I think the right word is attention theft. Just as failing to pay overtime is withholding money people don’t have yet, and yet we still call it wage theft, grabbing my attention for something I don’t want to pay it to is taking something that should be mine.
Almost every time I write or speak about civic technology, I talk about an over-arching design value: respect for people’s time, dignity, and abilities. (In a 2015 report, California’s Little Hoover Commission adapted this to “respect people’s time, ability, and means”, which also works.) This is critically important for life-impacting services like those government provides, and that goes for education and medicine as well. But I’m ready to propose that we apply it more broadly, and think about how it fits into the developing practice of design ethics: as a first principle, respect your users’ capacities, including the right to direct their own attention.
I’ll go further: designers, technologists, please protect your users’ capacities as seriously as you protect your own. As much as you guard your calendar from frivolous meetings so you can keep enough stretches of maker-time to achieve flow, as much as you turn off your phone for one-on-ones, or whatever you do as a high-capacity knowledge worker to preserve your attention for the tasks that need it most, practice the same respect for your users’ attention:
- Take no for an answer, the first time. This is one of the most important things — wearing someone down is not a good way into a relationship, and it’s not a good way to gain them as a subscriber or customer.
- Don’t ask for more attention than your product’s place in someone’s life warrants. If your product is Tuesday dinner delivery or car insurance quotes, fantastic. Improving those things is valuable, and the work we do improving many such things in aggregate is huge. (I’m honestly glad I can buy a nice bra in minutes online, even if thinking about bras consumes maybe 10 seconds of my day when the top drawer is open in the morning.) In the context of a complex human life, each is only a tiny piece. And if each small piece relentlessly plays for more and more attention, all of our capacities (even those of privileged, educated, experienced people) are inevitably overwhelmed. In such a state, we can’t be resilient as individuals or as a society.
- Be aware that people’s capacities vary and therefore what overtaxes them is different. It’s easy to imagine a user who will find it incredibly frustrating and taxing to have to make a phone call; it’s also easy to imagine one who will find it exhausting to have to learn their way around yet another app or website. Users have different language skills, physical abilities, domain knowledge; if you don’t know yours well enough to know what theirs are like, you can’t serve them well.
- Realize that if your product or service doesn’t provide value commensurate with the attention it asks of users, it will eventually fail. Unless it is an institutional service that can’t be gotten elsewhere, in which case it becomes a moral responsibility to avoid harming the people you serve. Either way, this has to be this one of the ways you evaluate success.
As an industry, we’ve perpetrated countless little attention thefts over the years, resulting ultimately in real harm to the people we serve. It’s time to stop.