The Role of Digital Design

Steps towards Healthier Online Environments?

Alina Mendler



A well-known discussion regarding the fast-developing digital world focusses on whether the technological progress leads to a “worse” society. Included in those debates are remarks considering anonymous messages would make us less emotional (Konrath et. al. 2011) and therefore have an impact on the way one communicates and acts. Another debate concludes that social media is designed in a way which harms the user and supports addictive and remote-controlled behaviour. Consequently, the original idea of a “World wide web” which is supposed to give individuals a voice independently their “status, wealth, race, or gender” (Suler 2004) seems controversial. Given the ambiguous condition of fast shifting real-life actions to online activities within most areas of daily life, on the one hand, and the mistrust and insecurity that comes with the digital changes on the other, there is a need for a healthier handling coming from both parties – the users and the platforms. But is reconsidering digital design a significant solution for the personal and due societal issues evoking from medial activity? 

In the following, I will consider the meaning behind digital designs and the term of human-centred-design within this context. I will evaluate the fatalities of the common conception of the “human-centred” design used to create virtual environments. Finally, there will be suggestions of digital design approaches centring humans rather than their proclivities.

The addictiveness of addictive design

Claims about the addictiveness of social media are omnipresent. More specifically, there are increasingly loud voices requesting a more consumer-centred attitude of digital media establishments. The latest insistence coming from Tristan Harris, a former Google contributor who dedicated himself to the ethics of digital companies. But how exactly do firms contribute to an unhealthy digital media usage?

Pierre Berthon et. al. (2019) point out that, in contrast to other drugs, digital products are not as addictive itself as their marketing is. They refer to the “4 Ps of marketing” containing product design, advertising and promotion, distribution and finally the price of a product. Whereas the last three aspects are meant to support further addictive behaviour, product design is the main instrument of habit-forming. The goal of the 4 Ps is to attract consumers in different dimensions. Firstly, the design is meant to generate a dopamine hit of anticipation. A well-known example of this effect is the excitement one can feel when receiving an alert. The significance of the notification tends to mismatch with the felt excitement which in the further course creates “a crave for more” (Berthon et. al. 2019). Combined with the strategy of maximizing usage this effect is compound. A common method is data collection-based content that keeps the costumer interested enough to increase his screen-time. Furthermore, there are certain features such as infinite pages and tagging to store eye-catching posts for later recurrence which facilitate continuous scrolling. Berthon et al. state that this leads to a fatal endlessly repeating behaviour. 

Advertising works as a supporting instance. It conveys an atmosphere that makes the product indispensable for the client. Moreover, it normalizes the usage of the advertised device by making it omnipresent within the contemporary environment. A similar logic applies to the distributive aspect of marketing. Constantly available internet creates an incentive for addictive behaviour. Not only does it bribe one to spontaneous usage, it also gives the possibility to exit situations of weakness, anxiety and social awkwardness. By making devices constantly available they become a present tool, integrated in the structure of every-day life.

Pricing indicates the last of the 4 Ps and merely assists dependent behaviour. Pierre Berthon et. al. (2019) compare the virtual pricing with fast-food chains where the less healthy and more addictive content is the cheapest, while the more sophisticated substance tends to be pricy. This allocates the user to consume games, social media and videos rather than newspapers. A further strategy is represented by “freemium Models”. This is particularly common for gaming platforms such as “battlefield” where users decide whether to pay money for further equipment and tools. The costs are often seamlessly low, and the transaction is made by using a single button. Gamers do not realize the amount of money that is added up. A second issue is the changing algorithm which follows the “pay-to-win” strategy. Once the consumer has paid, one must buy new gadgets in order to compete. Due to its disaffecting consequence, this concept can create highly addictive behaviour. There are studies claiming that the less cash-like a transaction is, the more consumers spend.

The consequences of addictive market strategies are severe, among them well-known psychological and physical issues such as poor concentration, narcissism, low-self-confidence and sleep disturbance. For a larger socio-economic context, studies show that addiction to digital experience can come along with productivity costs, opportunity costs and the decline in quality and civility in public discourse (Berthon et. al. 2019). 

Consequently, dependency on social media, devices and digital platforms does not only cause drastic individual problems but influences the economic efficiency as well as the societal structures. Given these facts, there is the question of the essence of digital design attitudes and how they can advocate a more human approach when it comes to creating products.

The philosophy behind digital design

One cloud computing company sells “empathic design” as a key element for enterprise-architecture in order to improve the customer experience. On their website they ask “[…] how do you turn the tables on consumer distraction, and overcome the attention span challenge? How do you fickle consumers and turn them into loyal customers?” (Alston 2016). While this might serve advertising rather than scientific intentions, it also reflects the anthropology deployed within the marketing area in a drastic way. 

The notion of human-centred design describes a procedure where companies seek to conduct research with potential users in order to drive design solutions (Friess 2010). Consequently, the user and his or her opinion and reaction are involved in the decision-making process. But what does “human-centred” refer to?

Early approaches of consumer-based design would follow “a philosophy based on the needs and interests of the user, with an emphasis on making products usable and understandable” (Norman et. al. 1986). At the same time, this approach implied that companies develop an assumption about the needs of their customers. Looking at the various ways to create addictive designs mentioned above, the question becomes who gets to decide what humans do truly need.

One notion is that “human-centred” research explores desires and what we want rather than what we would really need. It addresses our weaknesses rather than our interests. This notion seems plausible when taking a closer look into the companies’ goals. As an example, one common idea of digital development seems to seek convenience in all-day-life. Dorothy Leonard et. al. (1997) title one of their paragraphs “Unarticulated User Needs”, stating that many inconveniences are not recognized as a problem by users but could be beneficial to erase. Left aside in this context is the argument that convenience within every area of life might not be what people need in order to sustain a good mental and physical health. Accordingly, Josh Elman (Bosker 2016) accuses tech companies for being “keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives”.

Moreover, addressing supposed needs satisfied with digital design can serve to rationalize and justify the marketing strategies of companies. For example, by stating that personal advertisement is a useful tool for users, companies can disguise their intentions to create a manipulative online-environment in which the knowledge about the customer is exploited to target their attention. 

Tristan Harris, a former Google worker puts emphasis on the manipulative structures of the digital world. In an interview he explains how Google spent months to fine-tune the aesthetics of the Gmail app, “with the aim of building a more “delightful” email experience” (Bosker 2016). And when asked about the role of individual responsibility of virtual usage, his message about digital design is very clear. “[…] there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.” (Bosker 2016).

Making digital design healthier

Human-centred design seems to ignore the essence of what it genuinely means to focus on humans. In contrast, they appear to determine the aspects of humanity that can be targeted in order to maximize their screen-time and dependency on devices. Moreover, even in its genuine form, where human-centred design merely consults consumers on their needs there exists the questionable assumption that users are well-informed about the consequences of appealing design.

Despite restrictive policies that force companies to a more responsible behaviour towards their users, there seems to be a need to restate the idea of a design centring around humans. One inspiring aspect from the digital health sector is given by Christopher Terry et. al. (2016) claiming the importance of implementing digital empathy into the acts of digital environments. He describes digital empathy as “traditional empathic characteristics such as concern and caring for others expressed through computer-mediated communications”.

Another innovation was founded with the non-profit organization Centre for Humane Technology founded by Tristan Harris already mentioned above. Harris claims that it is the responsibility of digital companies to create products that truly value the time of consumers rather than exploit it. He wants to change the fundamentals of manipulative software design, proposing a “Hippocratic oath” for them, and to examine activity directed towards exposing people’s psychological vulnerabilities, restoring the agency to users. His suggestion is, at the end, simple: “Instead of trying to improve email, why not ask how email could improve our lives—or, for that matter, whether each design decision was making our lives worse?” (Bosker 2016).

Alina Mendler is a bachelor’s degree student at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich. She studies both Sociology and Economics and acknowledges that social psychology never stops to pique her interest. While at the University of Helsinki as an exchange student, she gained valuable insights into the subject of Digital Media and Society that motivated her to write about the steering aspects of Digital Media.

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