It’s now clear that designers and entrepreneurs need a new code of conduct, an ethical guide able to work as a reference for the development of new products and services and to integrate more human-centered design practices into their workflows. While the tech world is trying to escape the blame of a growing number of customers on privacy and screen addiction issues, the design community is becoming more fragmented and opinionated about these topics. The distinction between good and bad designers is becoming clearer and clearer.

Attention Economy — Attention Trust

Some articles written more than ten years ago started to cite an upcoming economics model that was later weaponized by tech companies and marketing departments around the world: the attention economy. Personal focus (attention/time) has become the electricity that powers most of the pop internet we know today.

In times of deregulation and fast, continuous innovation, Silicon Valley turned from offering convenient and empowering solutions to monopolizing people’s time and changing the way everyone perceives society. Designers played a key role in motorizing the industry with powerful tools of mass distraction — just because we’re good at it — but the time has come.

In 2007, naive and simplistic analyses defined what the upcoming attention economy was all about:

  • Property: You own your attention and can store it wherever you wish. You have CONTROL.
  • Mobility: You can securely move your attention wherever you want, whenever you want to. You have the ability to TRANSFER your attention.
  • Economy: You can pay attention to whomever you wish and receive value in return. Your attention has WORTH.
  • Transparency: You can SEE exactly how your attention is being used.

Now we know that most of the companies today learned how to harness the power of commoditized individual attention and surgically avoid customers’ intervention in deciding any of the mentioned aspects: property, mobility, economy, transparency.*

To be able to control these elements, you need good business rules, and for good design, you need good designers.

In recent years, designers have become the attractors, the embellishers, and most recently, the charmers for big data miners like Facebook and Snapchat. Good design should clearly inform users about their data use.

Scarcity of Attention vs. Abundance of Goods

Our time is limited, dictated by our habits, addictions, interests, and life events. This data profile is readily available for big tech companies.

If you feel like you own a lot of crap and don’t have enough time to do what makes you happy, you know what I’m talking about.

We’re all feeling it’s hard to focus on things that really matter to us while we are continuously pushed to buy product and services in a circle that is too often unethical and rarely sustainable.

Engagement vs. Usefulness

When time and attention are scarce, and designers get better at convincing users that an app is worth their time, the main focus in order for the system to grow is relevancy. For some people, being tricked or slightly deceived by an app or website is a conscious choice, but many today don’t realize the consequences of their actions while interacting with a UI.

Designers should consider not only making their apps engaging for users but also being transparent about the purpose and objectives of the products. Real engagement should come from a sort of usefulness and not self-reproducing content in which the only relevance for the user comes from being on the platform. As Herbert Simon once wrote:

“… in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.” (Simon 1971, pp. 40–41).

It’s clear today that if design is applied to consume as much attention as possible and try to convince users that they’re spending their time in the most meaningful manner, that’s definitely an unethical use of the superpowers given to a good designer. As a professional with an industrial design background, I grew up in a time when sustainable and “green” product design was taking off as a sensible topic among CEOs and creatives. We all recognized that being ecological was a necessity of the industry to reimagine a cleaner future.

Amid the recent scandals about privacy and online services, we can now see that UX designers, strategists, marketers, and PMs should try to clean up the mess and introduce a new set of sanitation practices.

Addictive By Design

We have all reached a point where designing very addictive, non-useful, scarcely relevant experiences is hurting the marketplace. Somehow, there’s a failure of what was one of the first rules of a drug dealer, or a tech company: Keep your customer happy.

Design and tech have changed every part of our lives, and in most cases, they improved our time and our productivity. But they also changed the way we spend our time, drain our attention, and sometimes determine important life choices, like the city we live in or the health provider we use.

Like many drug addicts, some users cross the line of being well-balanced at work or in their private life. Also, because of highly addictive apps and games, the time spent on self-improvement and learning new skills is shrinking, aggravating dependency on technology and attention problems. More and more jobs are requiring the use of cellphones and computers, so it’s easier to get our dose of social media more often than necessary.

An area of interest in design in the next decade will be improving users’ awareness of these problems, offering more useful services, and in some cases, offering personal detox solutions and restoring some free quality time.

Why? We definitely need people to focus on, understand, and act on important topics that are critical to the entire species, like climate change and human rights. Designers can and should help.