Exploring the Ethical Limits of App Design

What’s happening this week at the intersection of management and technology.

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Tech Savvy

Tech Savvy was a weekly column focused on new developments at the intersection of management and technology. For more weekly roundups for managers, see our Best of This Week series.
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Are your employee apps ethical? Companies are providing employees with more and more digital services for purposes that range from enhancing teamwork to getting a better night’s sleep. But do they promote agency — or addiction? Perhaps it’s time for managers to take a closer look at the design of those services — and question the techniques they employ to create a compelling user experience.

Toward this end, Tristan Harris has some choice words in a new article on Medium. “I’m an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities,” he begins. “That’s why I spent the last three years as Google’s Design Ethicist caring about how to design things in a way that defends a billion people’s minds from getting hijacked. When using technology, we often focus optimistically on all the things it does for us. But I want you to show you where it might do the opposite.”

Harris goes on to call out common hijacks that are intentionally and unintentionally built into the design of websites and apps. They include: menus that give the impression of choice, while limiting it; the embedding of intermittent, variable rewards that induce addictive behaviors; reliance on powerful motivators such as social approval and reciprocity; and seven more.

“I’ve listed a few techniques but there are literally thousands,” adds Harris. “Imagine whole bookshelves, seminars, workshops and trainings that teach aspiring tech entrepreneurs techniques like these. Imagine hundreds of engineers whose job every day is to invent new ways to keep you hooked.”

Harris, who studied under Professor BJ Fogg in Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab, is talking about big social media services offered to the general public by companies, such as Facebook, Instagram, TripAdvisor, and NYTimes.com. But his conclusion applies to digital services aimed at employees, too:

“The ultimate freedom is a free mind, and we need technology that’s on our team to help us live, feel, think and act freely. We need our smartphones, notifications screens and web browsers to be exoskeletons for our minds and interpersonal relationships that put our values, not our impulses, first. People’s time is valuable. And we should protect it with the same rigor as privacy and other digital rights.”

Directing investment in big data and predictive analytics: Corporations aren’t having any trouble scaring up data these days. And over the next few years,

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Topics

Tech Savvy

Tech Savvy was a weekly column focused on new developments at the intersection of management and technology. For more weekly roundups for managers, see our Best of This Week series.
See All Articles in This Series

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