Considering Digital Wellness in Design

Graphic shape of a phone with a peace sign on the screen

Have you ever felt worse after a scroll through social media? Or unable to relax because of all your notifications? So much of our lives are now intertwined with and even lived through technology. Digital wellness is a growing philosophy that aims to help people alleviate these types of problems through healthier use of technology. But what about healthier design?

Much of the conversation has circled around user-based actions like quitting social media and digital detoxes but these just aren’t practical long-term solutions in a world where it’s hard to do much of anything without tech. Plus, an all-or-nothing mindset is really what’s led us to these side effects in the first place. We need to develop more balanced relationships with our digital lives and in order to do that design approaches are going to need to shift as much as users’ habits. Are faster, easier, on-demand always better or are there cases where the short-term gains cost everyone in the long run?

When Good Design Goes Bad

In 2020, 20-year-old Alex Kearns killed himself after believing he owed $750,000 on the trading app Robinhood. It turned out he didn’t owe anything. Backlash following Alex’s death blamed Robinhood for luring inexperienced users to make risky trades they didn’t understand with a gamified design that, among other details, displayed confetti every time a trade was made. Finance experts even criticized the company for displaying temporary balance numbers, of which Alex’s $750,000 turned out to be, without even clarifying in the user interface that the numbers weren’t final.

Perhaps if the app had been designed not just to make it easier for anyone to trade but to also educate users on what they were doing, Alex wouldn’t have made such a tragic decision. He trusted that what the technology was telling him was correct. He had no reason to think otherwise, and he lost all hope.

Alex’s story illustrates that digital product design has more responsibility to users than just making something usable and aesthetically pleasing. The physical, mental, and emotional well-being of people is impacted by their digital experiences as much as physical, making digital design stakes much higher.

When Good Design is Disrupting

Design that eliminates as much work as possible for the user is generally labeled as good, but in some cases what’s best for the user is actually disrupting them. The ease and quickness of technology mean that those split-second thoughts that keep us from doing something not in our best interest are disappearing. We’re acting on knee-jerk emotions and not making good judgments.

This has become widely apparent with the spreading of false information on social media, which is damaging both individual’s lives and societies overall. Before and after the 2020 US election, Twitter implemented disruption as a tool in their platform design to slow the spread of false information. They put warning labels on misleading information that users had to click through to see a tweet, required users to comment or write a quote retweet to share this information, and provided prompts asking users to keep Twitter a place for reliable information before they could share it at all.

“Our goal with a lot of these prompts and interventions is to encourage more thoughtful consideration to add context to a user’s experience,”

Twitter

While you’d think users would just be annoyed at restrictions to the platform’s quick and simple interactive design, many instead appreciated that the design was trying to help them from being misled and from having negative experiences in that digital space. The company shared their design helped reduce quote retweets of misleading info by 29% and added the same prompt when users tapped to like this type of content.

When Good Design is Better Culture

Social media didn’t invent comparing yourself to others, but it made it a whole lot easier. Platforms that literally count and display the data of how much social approval everyone is getting have led to a judgmental and depressing culture of toxic positivity where only the optimized, best parts of life are shown. Younger users especially express how the stress of keeping up with this culture has caused them negative mental and emotional health.

In 2019, Instagram started testing a new design idea aimed at flipping the script on this culture. The design eliminated the source of comparison — the public data about likes. Users could still see the number of likes their content received but they didn’t have benchmarks in their social circles to compare it against anymore. Now Facebook and Instagram have announced they are rolling out the option soon to let all users hide the likes that other people’s content gets and/or the likes on their own content.

“We’re testing a new option that lets you decide the experience that’s best for you,”

Facebook

Personalized experiences are becoming increasingly popular and have been successful in making digital products more accessible, so it will be interesting to see the impact Facebook’s design has and if other companies will employ this approach to try and support digital wellness.

Final Thoughts

Before designing a product, designers often want to know what the product has the potential to help users with. Therein exists the opportunities. Usually, the answers revolve around the focused area or industry the product is in, but everyone should now be putting digital wellness on that list. It has the potential to be a problem for every user. Changes can be small, like adding or withholding information from your UI, or large, like giving users control over legacy design features for the first time, but as the idea of digital wellness grows so too will people’s expectations for tech to start contributing to the solution.

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