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In, “Computers for Cynics”, Ted Nelson explains the difference between technology and packaging. Technology is the application of science.
Packaging is using design to put technology together to form applications.
A resistor is technology. Computer protocols such as TCP, IP, and DHCP are technology. Nelson explains that packaging puts technology into applications. Packaging is how applications look and feel.
In creating applications, design matters. It is a crucial part of packaging technology.
Design guides user behavior and action. It can be used to benefit or harm people.
Careless design creates harmful applications. This is because these designs do not have the user in mind and are not guided by values.
Why Design Matters
Apple was founded in 1976 by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to sell personal computers. Apple focused on great design and revolutionary technology since its beginning. Jobs wanted to convey Apple’s values of minimalism and accessibility through design. He also understood that great design guides user experience and action.
Joseph Eichler built houses “inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision of simple modern homes for the American ‘everyman’” (Isaacson). The clean design of Eichler houses inspired Jobs. Zen Buddhism also influenced his ideas about design. These influences sparked “stark, minimalist aesthetics, intense focus” (Isaacson).
Jobs wanted to imbue values in the whole of Apple’s products. These values were deep simplicity and accessibility. Friendly and economic computers with elegant solutions to problems. Apple products have great design.
This is because their design aims, and succeeds, at fulfilling specific purposes. Values, which are simplicity and accessibility, set these purposes.
And great design informed by values of accessibility and simplicity led to usefulness.
Great design allows an application to fulfill its purpose.
Without great design applications would be wonky solutions to technical problems. Great design is also invisible, it creates seamless experiences. Design matters. It matters because it expresses values and guides user experience.
It matters because even the “slightest change in something as seemingly trivial as the ease of use of a button can sometimes completely alter behavior patterns” (Lanier 6). The behavior patterns of billions of people.
The design of an application is about fulfilling the purpose of that application. Purpose is not objective. Great design fulfills purpose regardless of what that purpose is. Applications that have not been well thought out have careless design. Careless design aims to fulfill a vague purpose or no purpose at all. Values do not guide it.
Vague principles of “connecting” with other people guide the careless design of the early versions of Facebook. Facebook’s vague principles and careless design are exposed when one asks, “Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way?” (Smith).
Mark Zuckerberg is “dispassionate about the philosophical questions concerning privacy — and sociality itself — raised by his ingenious program.” (Smith). It is Facebook’s design that raises questions about privacy and sociality. Zuckerberg’s lack of regard for the design implications of Facebook shows the careless design of Facebook.
He created Facebook with the vague purpose of “connecting” without thinking about its design implications. Which leads to a software application that is “falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous” because it does not have any values at its center (Smith).
Zadie Smith explains that
Facebook was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: films, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas or plants.)
Facebook is a prime example of careless design. This would not be alarming if not a lot of people used Facebook. But Facebook has 2.27 billion active users (Company Info). Even worse than careless design, is design with wrong intents.
Applications with wrong intents are applications that do not have the needs of its users in mind. They are applications that claim to provide value to the user but instead do the opposite. Like Facebook.
Facebook doesn’t aim to satisfy the needs of its users, it aims to get their attention. This is why Facebook, like many careless software applications these days, aims to be addictive, to have as much of its users’ attention as it can get. Facebook’s disingenuous design is due to the fact that it doesn’t have its users as its focus. It has Facebook’s customers as its focus, and its customers are not its users. Its customers are advertisers.
But Facebook has great design. It has many features that allow people to send messages to their friends. It has an infinite, scrolling, main feed that will rob your attention. It stores every single thing you like and do. Its great design fulfills Facebook’s vague purpose of connecting people. So not only is Facebook a careless reduction of people and social interactions, but it is also working against the interests of its users by stripping them of their privacy and their attention.
In addition to influencing the behavior patterns and actions of billions of people, design creates conventions.
Certain designs can become the conventional way of doing something.
An example is the back button. In his series, “Computers for Cynics”, Ted Nelson explains how he designed the back button in 1967. This design became a convention and is everywhere now. It is regarded as a fact of current applications. People are locked into this concept of how applications should behave. This is important because
designs, so often taken up in a slapdash, last-minute fashion, become ‘locked in,’ and, because they are software, used by millions, too often become impossible to adapt, or change (Smith).
The negative effects of careless design are amplified by the potential of design to become convention. Furthermore, Facebook’s status as a convention for “social” software applications has led to the widespread use of careless designs present on Facebook.
People devour content and applications, whether hardware or software, are highly important. They have clout in people’s lives, often in the form of attention. And this is why design matters. Because people are guided by design. People conform to design without even thinking about it.
Tristan Harris explores how design influences user behavior. He explains that design patterns similar to slot machines, perform an action and get a rewards, are often used to get people’s attention. One example of this is that
When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got (Harris).
Another design that Harris inspects is the infinite feed which encourages people to keep consuming even when they don’t need to. This is why “video and social media sites like Netflix, YouTube or Facebook autoplay the next video after a countdown instead of waiting for you to make a conscious choice” (Harris). In dealing with these kinds of designs Harris comments
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.
It is clear that careless and harmful designs do not create applications that benefit people. People’s needs must be at the center of application design.
People’s needs and interests need to be the most important aspect of design. Because otherwise, applications are not working for people.
Otherwise we, as a collective, might find ourselves living in infinite scrolling menus and eagerly waiting for rewards in applications without even knowing why.
Why do we allow ourselves to be manipulated and controlled by our tools?
Why should our tools do anything else than work for us?
Why are we so careless?
“Company Info.” Facebook Newsroom, Facebook Newsroom, newsroom.fb.com/company-info/.
Harris, Tristan. “How Technology Is Hijacking Your Mind — from a Former Insider.” Thrive Global, 18 May 2016, medium.com/thrive-global/how-technology-hijacks-peoples-minds-from-a-magician-and-google-s-design-ethicist-56d62ef5edf3.
Lanier, Jaron. You Are Not a Gadget. Knopf, 2010.
Nelson, Ted, director. “Computers for Cynics 0 — The Myth of Technology.” YouTube. YouTube, YouTube, 22 May 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=KdnGPQaICjk&list=WL&index=5&t=0s.
Smith, Zadie. “Generation Why?” The New York Review of Books, The New York Review of Books, 25 Nov. 2010, www.nybooks.com/articles/2010/11/25/generation-why/.
Why Values Should Drive Applications was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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