Ethical Design and Time Well Spent

Diagonal matrix with rows and columns of mobile phones with different social media icons like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

The amount of time we spend engaged with our digital devices, especially our smart phones, doesn’t necessarily make us feel more empowered.

The organization Time Well Spent argues that the reason for this isn’t some moral failing on the part of users but rather a question of intentional design:

“Many people think our devices are neutral and it’s up to us to choose how to use them. But that’s not all true. Attention companies (like Snapchat, Facebook or Netflix) spend millions of dollars on teams of engineers, called Growth Hackers, whose job is to invent new ways to hook us into spending more time.”

Time Well Spent has four practical steps which allow users more agency in the ways they spend time on their devices: 1. Allow notifications from people, not machines, 2. Create a tools-only home screen, 3. Launch apps by typing, and 4. Charge your device outside the bedroom.

Besides these individual steps, Time Well Spent challenges us to rethink the structural and economic elements of design. For example, how websites and apps that rely on advertising in turn depend on clicks for revenue, creating conditions and incentives for the circulation of provocative yet non-credible information.

One area that deserves particular attention, especially in relation to accessible design, is Design for Agency. Time Well Spent asks us to reflect on the following questions:

“How can our devices respect our attention, intentions and the freedom of our mind?
What are layouts for menus and scrolling feeds that support meaningful choicemaking? What should be the default settings while treating individual people with unique goals with dignity?”

These questions encourage us to ask many more. They ask us to consider the connections between design, accessibility and agency.


Featured image: “Mobile-Phone” Gerd Altmann.

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