/ UX

Attention Ecology: designing a sustainable user experience

Focused on distractions

As designers we're in great part responsible for the interactions and experience mecanics underlying the products in our digital industry. Responsability in the field of design isn't a new thing, in the 60's Ken Garland published First Things First a design manifesto engaging actors in the field of design to build products that are useful and non abusive (either in price, quality or function) of consumers. More recently we saw several initiatives focused on distractions: Calm Technology and Time Well Spent both aim to give visibility to major problems: users lack time, and are in constant cognitive overload. Unsurprisingly Google also initiated an ethical UX research pole. Actually, as users, we're gradually lacking a hollistic appreciation and understanding of our surroundings as well as in-depth attention. This cognitive mecanism is feeding major issues our societies must face today like Hyperreality and Post-truth. To be clear, this impacts massively our intelligence and ability to make medium to long term oriented decisions. In short we're building systems which are making us more stupid.

photo credit: David Zilber

Attention Economy — vs — Attention Ecology

Economy creates new environments while ecology tends to preserve existing ones. If we had to use an easy analogy in terms of urban planning, an real life example to economy would be a mall, however an equivalent to ecology would be the whole urban, suburban and natural environment. Both spaces enable interactions and transactions, however the mall only enables one-way commercial transactions. The difficulties of living in a mall could easily be compared to the difficulties of preserving impartial jugement on Facebook. However distant these analogies may seem, it's hard to ignore that attention economy and monetization are depleting our mental space. Our experience as users is being constantly polarized between different attentional regimes, as described below by Dominique Boullier:

Credits: Citton, Yves. The Ecology of Attention, 2016.

As users, citizens, and humans we have the right to err. As UX and UI design guidelines become standardized we've lost something fundamental in our experience of technology: curiosity. What drove us to wait minutes of horrid bleeps of modem connections in the 90's was precisely the feeling of adventure. Perhaps working on a computer was a tedious task, however what got us going wasn't the efficiency of the process, it was curiosity. And even if the process to redact and edit textual content was made much easier than with our old Olivetti typewriter, what really got us into computers wasn't only task-oriented, it was also largely the drive for discovery. Attention monetization is what it's all about: monetizing encounters. Encounters between users and information, between users and other users which in turn retain other informations. In human terms we call this "serendipity", which levels up to an arcane term the 90's internet users called "surfing".

Meaning only grows out of intimacy. Meaning and curiosity drive individuals into being productive.

Looking back at the right to err, curiosity and the depletion of our mental space something seems evident: discoverability as a key component of interaction design is eroding as a hollistic experience in technology and being replaced with monetized interactions. In other words, not only interactions are being "franchized", typically in the case of ad-powered business models, but our whole experience with technology is now commoditized. This results in predefined user scenarios and somehow leads to excluding the user as a crucial part of society by relegating him to a solely economic ressource.

Building scalable user communities

There's an interesting opposition going on in Interaction Design and UX: there's a formal polarization going on in content design. Contents tend to differentiate: photos tend to become circular or square, videos tend to be elongated when the spectacular is conveyed, however they tend to be portrait oriented when immediacy is the goal (mobile live-streams). Color is color, form tends to appeal to universal standards like square, circles and triangles, and ergonomics mimic a material world through material design. Text is readable on Medium (hopefully), but functional in Chatbots or Slack. The invention of sans-serif fonts where a result of the industrialisation of the printing press, which in turn led to the proliferation of printed information: thus the need to distinguish headlines from far (which leads to better newspaper sales). What follows is a history of information experiences for the user: we spend most of our time distinguishing and sorting information along different veracity and reliability axis.

As design patterns and guidelines become standardised, product design becomes streamlined, as well as user experience. Through these templates we're producing digital goods at a faster pace, however we're also homogenizing things for the user because simply, the risk is displaced from being authentic in it's vision and culture to being commercially viable. Users don't question veracity and authenticity of an authentic good simply because they can feel this authenticity is not fabricated. Only in the case of spectacular attention users voluntarily accept to believe in something they know is fabricated : in cinema, this process is called suspension of disbelief.

Yves Citton, in his recent book The Ecology of Attention, distinguishes between 3 main types of attention and 3 subtypes of the latest: Collective attention, Conjoined attention, and Individuating attention which in turn can be divided. These latter subtypes are: the Individuating reflexive attention, the Individuating voluntary attention, and the Individuating automatic attention. If you've been paying attention so long then hold tight, the light is near: different intents lead these behaviors, these are:

  1. information-oriented
  2. exploratory, associative
  3. immersive, spectacular
  4. social

By building tools with your users, and knowing what type of attention you want to generate for which experience will assure your product is not only consistent and useful, it will also be efficient and adopted by a growing community of users. Designers should act only as intermediaries of intelligibility of the application's content, whether it concerns interactions or information, following well established UX guidelines like Miller's law, for example which specifies a range of items a user can keep in mind while avoiding cognitive overload and keeping Hick's law down to a minimum (even more, this also permits users to access an cognitive process named subitizing). However, most importantly, Interaction and user experience designers should refocus on creating wholeness. It seems inevitable to call to a return of the 15 basic principles of wholeness defined by Christopher Alexander in A Pattern Language.

Credits: Alexander, Christopher. A Pattern Language, 1977.

Intent, Content & Context

Good tools are built bottom up, from the users for the users. Open-source and DIY products are viable when they have meaning for their users and owners, and dedicated users are concerned about the viability of their culture. A solid community of users creates intent. Their activity, whether you consider source code, social interactions or media publication creates content. Find the right market, the right transactions by identifying what users are willingly ready to pay for and you have context. Cohesion of these three aspects of a business can be assured by the productivity of your community.

Meaning only grows out of intimacy. Meaning and curiosity drive individuals into being productive. Intimacy is impossible to obtain in a distracting environment.

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