Designing Human Experiences
The unintended consequences of design decisions and the need for more thoughtfully designed digital.
User experience design is composed of a vast array of methodologies and techniques designers and researchers use to humanize digital experiences, with the end goal of making digital products easy and enjoyable for people to use.
While this is a constantly evolving profession, I can’t help but wonder — are we succeeding, or are we failing at achieving our goal?
Designers are studying people, learning about their motivations, needs and wants, and applying that knowledge to user experience design. With all of this new information, are we designing experiences that positively impact the lives of our users, or are we designing features that are easy to use, but negatively impact the mental state of our users?
I began pondering these questions after seeing several friends post on Facebook that they needed to take a mental health break from the platform.
This made me question: what about Facebook is making people so unhappy, or even, mentally unstable? And, how is my experience on social media, in general, impacting my mental health?
One of the exercises I did to better understand how these platforms make me feel, was to think about what it would be like if these spaces existed in the real world. How would I feel in those real spaces?
Below is an exploration into my most commonly used digital platforms and what I discovered about how the design of specific features makes me feel, subconsciously.
When I think of Facebook as a space in the real world, I imagine standing on a busy street corner, in an unfamiliar city, exposed to all the elements.
I look around and am overwhelmed. I am mesmerized by the giant flashing advertisements and the hustle and bustle of people rushing past me. It’s noisy, overcrowded, overwhelming, exhausting, and intriguing all at once.
Facebook started as an intimate space designed to keep people connected. It has transformed into a public space, a monumental city to get lost in.
Targeted advertising bombards my news feed, algorithms decide what I see and when I see it — Facebook even recommends who I should be friends with. This is no longer my personal space to connect with my closest friends; this is the experience Facebook wants me to have, the one that will generate the most revenue.
Photo by Yuting Gao
Instagram, as a physical space, makes me feel like I am standing outside, looking into a glass house. It’s night-time and I’m in the dark, watching the lives of the people who live inside. The people in the houses know they are being watched, and they like it. They put on a show for the people in the dark. I watch them, mesmerized.
One of the most interesting pieces of the user experience that causes this feeling, is how Instagram makes it difficult to connect with other users.
Comments are de-emphasized and clicking on them takes the user to another page — an annoying detour away from the main attraction, the photos. This new page is meant to be dedicated to a specific conversation, but even here, replies are hidden and must be expanded one by one.
This inconvenience in the user experience is subconsciously telling me that Instagram is not a space meant for deep connections, or conversations. I am meant to watch and to like, but not to connect — leaving me feeling isolated, watching everyone from a distance.
Spotify, as a real-world space, makes me feel like I am at home and surrounded by eclectic art and music. It feels private and intimate — just the setting I want when I am fully immersed in a listening experience.
Spotify creates a sense of intimacy and privacy through personalization. Whether it’s the customized Daily Mixes, the Release Radar feature that ensures users don’t miss out on any new releases, or the Discover Weekly feature that offers a variety of musical options for users who want to try out new sounds, Spotify has prioritized the idea of customized experiences for their users.
This personalization makes users — myself included — feel more connected to the platform.
While music is always the priority when it comes to UI real estate on Spotify, another great feature is the friends list — an always-visible list of friends using the app. I appreciate this feature because it makes the platform feel even more customized to my life and my social network.
I can hear what my friends are listening to, which is a great way to create and strengthen bonds by connecting over music. This consideration and thoughtful design leaves me feeling comfortable and contented.
Netflix is an interesting contrast to Spotify. They’ve attempted to create a personalized experience for their users, but their version of personalization leaves me feeling like I am again in a public space.
There is a constant battle between what I want to watch and what Netflix wants me to watch. Netflix pushes content more aggressively than Spotify, which makes for a less comfortable experience.
Instead of Netflix making me feel like I am in the comfort of my home, I feel like I’m in a movie theater. I am there to watch what I paid for, but I am being forced to watch trailers for movies I may or may not care about.
Perhaps this is Netflix’s intention, but I wonder how the user experience would be different if they were less focused on pushing content and more focused on creating a space for users to feel truly connected to.
Photo by Lloyd Dirks
From one designer to the next, I challenge you to think about how your designs make users feel. Not just aesthetically, although aesthetics do play a significant part in the creation of feeling and emotional impressions.
How are the features you design going to impact users on a subconscious level? When people aren’t using your product, what will remain in their memory? What will they take away? Did you create a positive experience for them?
How can we make better, more thoughtful decisions about what we are creating and how our creations will impact people’s lives?
I don’t presume to have the answers to these questions. This is something I’ve begun to explore and I invite you to explore also.
Let’s start being more conscious about what we bring into the world, and as designers of human experiences, let’s deeply consider the impact of our creations on the people and the world around us.