The crux of software design

In late Fall 2016, I removed all the primary social media applications off my iPhone. With years of varying usage, I grew uncomfortably aware with how trapped in its web I was and wanted to dramatically reduce the place it held in my life.

A daily routine without it validated earlier thoughts I entertained, officially cracking open a clear perspective around this addiction we’ve socialized as our modern, digitized way of life.

In great regularity, we’re engaging with systems that have a manipulative custody of our attention and psychology.  A like, a push notification, a message read receipt.  These platforms have become social programming gatekeepers that strategically utilize psychological triggers in the form of features to cater towards our basic social needs. Momentarily, it convinces us we’re well fed, but almost immediately our appetite re-emerges.

It bares a very important question – what are the motives behind how software is designed at scale and is the impact of this approach on humanity ethical and healthy?

Nobody is answering this question better than Tristan Harris.

An ex-Googler who had an unusual, yet enviable job title – Product Philosopher – Tristan is well known as the “closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience” and is leading the movement behind Time Well Spent, an advocacy group that better aligns technology’s role with humanity.

Tristan is in the technology vanguard of a product lifecycle trend we’ve seen in other sectors.  For decades, organizations were not developing consumer products predicated on prioritizing the end-consumer’s well-being.  Ironically, consumers weren’t prioritizing it either.  As a result, the processes were designed in a business context to maximize scale and profits with the environmental and social impact as an afterthought. Let’s call this phase one.  In a subsequent phase two, consumers became more in touch with their bodies and as a byproduct we saw a massive dovetail with natural foods, ethically-sourced products, and the like.  Social and environmental mindfulness was catapulted to the forefront.

In the same way consumers became more in touch with their bodies – with technology, I believe the bet here is that consumers are becoming more in touch with their minds. If we’re in phase one, this means two things – (1) currently, organizations have designed their processes around maximizing scale and engagement (how the success of many technology businesses is partly measured) and (2) we’re still awaiting a shift in consumer mindset to trigger the floodgate that will re-engineer the handshake between humanity and technology. Tristan stands before us with the ingredients for phase two.

We can prepare for a brighter future if technology organizations build an auditing layer into their product development lifecycle that echo the sentiments of Tristan’s work.  From here, we can imagine a day where phase one deteriorates and our first approach has its priorities straight.

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