The digital world, as we’ve designed it, is draining us. The products and services we use are like needy friends. Desperate and demanding. Yet we can’t step away. We’re in a codependent relationship where they are the victim — shaming us because we haven’t given them enough — and we are the rescuer, always willing to give a little more.
They need our data, and our files, and our photos, and our posts, and our friends, and our cars, and our houses. They need every second of our attention.
We are willing to give because they are useful. We’ve actually gotten really good at creating useful products. We’ve perfected design processes that allow us to improve the way people accomplish tasks. We’re experts at delivering utility. Unfortunately, it’s becoming more and more clear that utility alone isn’t enough. Quite often, our interactions with these useful products leave us feeling depressed, diminished and frustrated.
What we want is to feel empowered by technology, but we’ve forgotten that utility does not equal empowerment.
Empowerment is the process of becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s rights.
This is not our current paradigm. Today, the digital products we use demand so much of us, and intrude so deeply into our daily existence that they undermine our confidence and make it harder and harder for us to control our lives. Our data and activity are mined and used with no compensation or transparency. Our focus is crippled by constant notifications. Our choices are actively reduced by algorithms that decide what we should see. In the worst of it, we can’t even set our devices down because we’ve lost our ability to resist them.
We brush this off because we’ve confused the sense of utility for the feeling of empowerment. We assure ourselves that we’re owning our life when we get a great deal on a place to stay or get the latest update from a friend, or discover a great article, or get our groceries delivered without leaving the house. The reality is that we’re actually accepting utility in exchange for disempowerment.
We’ve been on this trajectory for a while. For decades, companies have taken increasing license to insert themselves into our lives. This trend has hit a crescendo in the last ten years driven by a combination of proximity and data availability.
Everything we do on the web is trackable. The level of data granularity available to companies today was unfathomable before the internet. Even in the early years of the web, companies were beginning to leverage these new found insights to target us and drive their business. But, back then there was still a degree of separation. We just weren’t on our computers that much. Then the smartphone came along.
Smartphones created a previously unimaginable level of proximity between customers and companies. This new, ever-present connection in our pocket drove a dramatic increase in the amount of time we spent online, and suddenly companies could reach us directly any time, anywhere. Couple this new proximity with growing mountains of data, and the separation between our life and the companies who want to influence it disappeared. This is an unsustainable relationship, and it is not the future.
Our model of value is to design for utility, believing that by delivering usefulness our customers will absolve us of the things we do in the name it. That model is failing because it misses the bigger picture of what humans want from the technology they use. Utility alone won’t assuage us. We want to be empowered. We want technology to enhance our capabilities and increase our sense of agency, without dictating the rhythm of our lives.