Hello, Amanda writing from a rainy San Francisco this week. After attending an art show recently, my husband and I found ourselves standing outside the venue chatting with groups of other attendees. Although strangers, the discussions between all of us were easygoing and lively, spurred by a feeling of familiarity through our shared experience. It was fleeting – after a while the groups broke apart, phones were fired up, and we all retreated back into our technology and out into the night.
The internet now hosts 4.39 billion users worldwide. That’s an increase of 366 million over 2018, meaning that over a million new people log on to the web every day. Of those, an estimated 3.48 billion – roughly 45% of the global population – are active social media users.
Joining together in a common experience was an ideal that helped drive the rapid adoption of the internet, and instant, digital communication was going to help us feel more connected to our fellow humans. Sadly, it can also be viewed as an experiment in how communication breaks down on a global scale.
In this issue, we talk with Alexis Lloyd and Matt Boggie of the Ethical Futures Lab about connecting in our digital-driven world. Social platforms are designed such that, if everyone follows all the rules all the time, everything should work great. But what happens when a few billion people don’t?
If you happen to be in NYC tonight, December 5th, catch Matt talking about all things The Creative Factor at Ueno NYC’s upcoming Chatty Hour. You can register for a free ticket here, and we encourage you to come join for an evening of drinks, snacks, and Matt’s bottomless supply of sports metaphors.
Amanda Tuft & Matt McCue, Co-Founders / Editors@thecreativefactor.co
Matt Boggie and Alexis Lloyd met while they were working together at the New York Times R&D Lab, a division of the news publisher devoted to experimenting with how emerging technologies can be used in journalism to enable new forms of storytelling. While there, they found themselves looking for different signals – be they opinions, stories, and news articles – that when taken on their own might not be monumental, but lend themselves in aggregate to bringing a larger picture into focus.
A few years later, both having moved on to other jobs – Matt is currently CTO of daily news site The Skimm, and Alexis is the VP of Product Design for Medium – they found themselves missing the practice of foresight, and wanted to create a conversation about the ethical concerns around new technologies. The pair founded the Ethical Futures Lab, with its newsletter – aptly named Six Signals – as a way of holding up a lens to both themselves and the tech industry. “We are trying to get people to think about the ethical choices behind the technologies they use and the ways in which those technologies are put out into the world,” explains Matt. “To consider those choices as they’re being made, and to ask: Is there a better way, a different direction, or a more preferred outcome that I want here?”
We sit down with Matt and Alexis to hear more about why our online personas can get the better of us, and how small choices have big impacts.
Would we ever leave our social networks behind?
Matt: There is always going to be some natural impetus to connect with other people in some way, and where social has really gone in a different direction is in the attempts to monetize that particular interaction. Facebook would still be a fine place if it were still the place where you post photos of your vacations and invite your friends to events. Where it started to go south was when all that data was then turned into something that could be monetized, and sliced and diced for the purpose of serving commercial messages to people. And further, saying that any message could be a commercial message – even ones that are blatantly, provably false – can still be distributed and targeted at people. Those choices have a huge impact on what the platform can do.
Societal norms start to break down really quickly online – we stop being polite. Are we simply showing our true selves over social media, or is there something intrinsic to these platforms that brings out the worst in people?
Alexis: I think part of this is scale. There are a lot of social norms that work up to a certain scale, where you have a sense of individuals in the room with you – whether that room is virtual or physical. Beyond a certain scale, it’s easier to dehumanize people. Or rather, harder to humanize people. There is also a question about the degree of fidelity or resolution of single-channel textual communications – where’s there’s not as much signal, and it can be a lot easier to have miscommunication happen.
Matt: On a day-to-day basis you associate with people who you feel are a lot like you, and you disassociate with people who you disagree with. It’s human nature to be a little tribal, and these tools make that easy. Scale is a huge part of that. If I’m shouting into a crowd, I don’t necessarily put any identity behind the faces I’m yelling at, but also I don’t necessarily think I’m ever going to see these faces again, so there’s really no cost to it. Whereas if I’m in a smaller group of a hundred or few hundred people who I have to interact with in the future, and who I have to create a social bond with, I’m going to behave much differently in that situation.
Alexis: This is why I’m interested in experience design, because this is where you tend to encourage or discourage certain kinds of behavior in both detailed and subtle ways. And I’m curious about the ways that happens. Frank Chimero wrote a nice essay about the design of reactions on social networks. His perspective was that positive reactions were built in as a simple, undifferentiated feature – like clicking a heart icon – and they take up less visual and mental space than negative reactions. Negative reactions are both more visually prominent and more specific. And his quote was “one heckler with incisive comments can block out the generalized applause of many more people.”
There are interesting decisions about the way UX design and UI design influences or encourages different kinds of social behaviors. Tumblr specifically made it so that, if you wanted to comment on someone else’s post potentially negatively, you had to re-blog it, you had to take that quote into your own space, and basically corrupt your own space with your negativity rather than being able to graffiti up their space.
Which brings us to, from a user experience standpoint, how do we have different conversations online?
Alexis: It’s one of the things Matt and I have talked a lot about. Are there ways we can solve for the scale problem, at scale? How do you create smaller communities within larger communities, that lead to more personal connections – and therefore, theoretically, less abuse? Then there are all these kinds of UX questions – for example, how do you encourage more visible and positive feedback in social environments? What are the kinds of defaults that you can set up that encourage positive behavior, and make it harder to behave negatively?
Matt: There is a great video that describes the difference between the ways Vision Zero as a program is being implemented in the United States versus the way it’s being implemented in Europe. There is a huge difference in the systems. In the United States, they are being designed such that, if everyone follows the rules all the time, everything will work great. And they’re being designed in Europe in such a way that’s saying, people make mistakes. The infrastructure is designed to allow for that in such a way that making mistakes is both more difficult, and has a lower impact.
For example, if you have a 20 mph speed limit on a street in the United States, there’s a sign on the sidewalk that says “20 mph” and that’s it. In some residential areas in Amsterdam, you’ll find that the road will actually zig-zag a bit, and they’ll have curved paths at the crosswalks that you have to swerve a little to the left or right, or they’ll alternate which side the parking is on, so that you have to pay attention to the obstacles in your way. You quite naturally slow down because you need extra reaction time to navigate.
Also bike lanes: If we want a good bike lane here in New York it’s green paint, for the most part; maybe you’ll get some plastic traffic delineators that you can easily plow through if you’re in a car. But in parts of Europe not only are the lanes separate, but they are often at different elevations, with different textures of materials between. So you might find cobblestones and an ellipse separating the automobile roadway from the bike roadway, and again from the bikes to the sidewalk. Each class has its own space, and there is a clear spot at which you transition from one space to another, and that transition is difficult. You have to bump up on a curb or make a significant change in your direction in order to do the wrong thing.
Alexis: Bringing that back to the technology world, the rhetoric of Silicon Valley has been a very optimistic, “this is going to do great things, we’re going to connect people across the world.” And it is very much that American approach to Vision Zero, which is that we’re going to assume that everyone is going to do the right thing, and then maybe we’ll build in some guardrails for people to prevent things that we see people doing what we don’t want them to do.
This, versus an approach where it’s really important at the beginning of a process to identify what the unintended consequences might be, and to design an experience that is with that in mind. It is a really different approach to how we think about what we do with technology.
Who has the power to enact change? Is it on an individual level? If we take a social media company for example, where does that decision structure lie?
Alexis: One of the ways people have avoided responsibility for those kinds of decisions is to say: “Well, we’re just offering people a choice, and they can choose to use this platform or not. We’re just offering an option, and whether people take that option or not is up to them.” But introducing new choices is not neutral, and there are costs for opting out of new technological capabilities.
The defaults and constraints you put into place have big repercussions over time. And often it’s not these big leadership moments, it’s how you make the small decisions in ways that are thoughtful, and understand what the potential implications might be. Companies are avoiding responsibilities for these decisions and putting the onus of those decisions onto the people who are using the product they’ve made.
There’s this theme of individualism: “It’s a free market and everyone is free to make their own choices; you don’t have to use this, we’re just putting it out there.” But ‘putting it out there’ fundamentally changes expectations and cultural conversations. There’s a high level of responsibility; someone who is leading a technology company has to take ownership of not only the use but the misuse of the things that they put out there.
What We’re Reading: User Friendly: How the Hidden Rules of Design Are Changing the Way We Live, Work, and Play
In Cliff Kuang and Robert Fabricant’s insightful new book, a familiar character shows up: Don Norman, the person who coined the term “user experience” in the 1990s. The authors describe Norman as an extremely bright person who is prone to acting like an absent-minded professor at times (pushing on doors that should be pulled, for example). By studying human error, Norman gained insight into why people behave as they do and designed accordingly.
“His great insight was that no matter how complex the technology, or how familiar, our expectations remain the same,” write the authors. “Norman’s discipline, cognitive psychology, wasn’t as much about the nuances of buttons and control panels—though there is plenty of that, if you want to look—but rather the ways which humans assume their environments should work, how they learn about it, how they make sense of it.” His focus on designing for “foibles and limitations, rather than some ideal” is lasting. After all, we’re human.
How to Rebrand a Country (Hint: It involves gorillas)
The New York Times is out with a story about how Colombia, Rwanda, and Croatia—once seen as dangerous countries—rebranded their visitor experiences. In 1995, war-torn Croatia had 1.5 million visitors; now it sees nearly 20 million annually, on the way to becoming Exhibit A. for overtourism. Rwanda has also seen an uptick, from 826,000 visitors in 2007 to 1.5 million in 2017.
The Times distilled their reporting into seven rebranding steps, from “you can’t run from the past” to “find a symbol” to rally around. Let’s take a look at Rwanda. It is known for one horrific event—the 1994 genocide where 800,000 people died. “Throw in the fact that there’s only been one major Hollywood movie about Rwanda, which fuels the negative perception of this small African country that’s kind of unknown already, so even if you know a little about Rwanda it’s probably in the prism of Hotel Rwanda,” said Sunny Ntayombya, marketing and communications manager for the Rwanda Development Board.
Rwanda knows it must move beyond being defined by a single event in history. And for that they turned to the gorilla and gorilla protection to represent a new chapter of conservation and compassion. It has worked so well that there are imitators—Sierra Leone is trying to do the same thing with chimpanzee conservation.
Acronyms Destroying Value: The UX Edition
“The term “UX,” the industry-accepted initials for User Experience, is dead to me.” When we read that opening lines to Scott’s Kiekbush’s Medium piece, Raise Your Hand if You’re Sick of the Letters UX, we thought, Here is somebody we’d get along with just fine. As Kiekbush, a digital product designer, notes, Don Norman isn’t thrilled how his original definition—“user experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products—has evolved into a bland catch-all term. Dumbed-down, catch-all terms have little value.
Kiekbush writes, “Ask ten people what a UX person does and you’ll get ten answers. Sure, there will be overlap in those answers, but you’re guaranteed to get a broad range of tasks & skills—from project management to programming and everything in-between. The one common thread in the answers will likely have something to do with the design of a digital user interface. A user interface is not a user experience.”
So what’s the path forward? More debates on who is a designer? Um, no.
We need to use more nuance and detail to describe what we do. “Designing a user experience isn’t a specific role or job for one person,” writes Kiekbush. “It’s a collective and cross-functional effort critical to the success of every organization. If everyone can agree to ditch those 2 letters in job titles, and use roles that are more specific, I believe we may never have to hear someone ask us to “do the UX” ever again.”
/ Final Thought
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