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User Experience Design Technology

The key to experience design is kindness

By Matt Barnes

December 19, 2019 | 5 min read

A couple of months ago I wrote an article about the widening 'self gap' between our online personas and our digital ones. At the time Instagram had taken steps to remove public like counts to reduce the urge to compare yourself against your peers.

Matt Barnes

Conversely, there was some criticism that this may have been a way to shift power away from influencers on the platform, and back towards (paid for) sponsored posts. I’m opting for the hopeful view that this is a digital wellbeing play.

Regardless of the intent, it’s good to see some of the larger social platforms starting to respond to the cultural backlash against negative behavioural trends. Behaviours like compulsive checking, the inability to stop gaming (or ‘gaming disorder’), online gambling, status anxiety, peer expectation and perfectionism are on the rise. Their impact on our mental health cannot be underestimated.

Software is often designed to facilitate these behaviours. Routine, instant gratification, comparison with others (or “herding”) and encouraging habitual use are key pillars of gamification strategy. Sometimes referred to as “digital persuasion design”.

The stats on how we are using our devices are pretty frightening. We are addicted. On average in the OECD, we spend more than three hours a day on our phones, and check it over 80 times. In New Zealand, kids are spending an hour and a half on screens every day — at 2 years old. Half of our under 35s use their phone in the dead of the night. We’re mobile shopping at 3:57 am. Our thumbs climb Everest every year, or 180 metres per day. My dad used to tell me I’d get square eyes watching TV, today my eyes are in danger of becoming 1792‑by‑828‑pixels at 326ppi.

Digital persuasion design is working. We’re finding it hard to resist.

But it’s not all doom and OLED gloom, there is a growing awareness and desire for positive change. We are actively seeking to re-balance our digital behaviour with our real lives. Google searches for the term ‘self care’ have doubled in the past five years, and ‘digital wellbeing’ is a thing. Apps like Headspace are great examples of using technology to help us re-engage with the things that matter the most. It currently has 31 million downloads.

Additionally, we are retreating from public personas to more private, socially comfortable ones. Closed communities that are member moderated, that promote safety and kindness, as well as healthy debate. Facebook, for example, is putting groups at the heart of their experience, and the private messaging app Telegram now has 200 million monthly active users.

Responsible design of our digital platforms requires a new set of parameters — promoting awareness around self care, mental health, time management and social mechanics that support healthy engagement. A culture of kindness.

Colenso’s latest project with Spark New Zealand attempts to do this. Spark Play rewards active playtime (with a connected ball) with screen time. It demonstrates the benefits of balance. It’s a tool to support families and their daily conversation around a healthy use of digital experiences. Kiwi parents are crying out for help.

Most tools that allow us to be in control of our digital interactions are still quite primitive but are improving. Apple is evolving its screen time feature for individuals and families. Instagram has introduced time limits and, as above, is reducing the need for being “liked”. Pinterest (and Stanford University) are introducing emotional well-being activities that offer people an interactive way to try to improve their mood.

And in another great example, Uber has partnered with Calm to repurpose short journeys as mindfulness moments. They’ve created guided meditations for different journey lengths that enable people to free up some mental space.

There is a move towards a more measured approach — one that includes the wellbeing of the customer in our set of success metrics. For after all, without the customer, there is no engagement.

It’s slow, and we need to go further. More transparency on how these experiences are being designed, more digital literacy and awareness of the effects of digital addiction, and more moderation for what our kids are watching and doing online.

The potential is plain to see. Digital platforms as a place for healthy social interaction. A force for social equality and diversity, for empathy and compassion. Imagine if kindness were a key part of experience design.

Meanwhile, I’m going outside.

Matt Barnes is head of digital at Colenso BBDO.

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