UX Design

The problem with products that promote laziness

The web is an amazing tool that gave the world treasures such as Wikipedia and Lolcats right alongside Youtube comment trolls.

It’s full of gems that are as creative as they are pointless. Such gems include diaper alarms, pre-peeled bananas…

Let’s not forget my latest find and new all-time favourite: the Pre-cracked egg.

You’re not dreaming. This pre-cracked egg adds bulky packaging and kills any hope of tracing the product back to its home farm. Just like the pre-peeled banana it does nothing to boost the initial value proposition (taste/sustenance) but it marginally reduces the effort cost by skipping the need to crack it or wash your hands.

I can already hear your indignant replies: “This is preposterous!”, “People will never buy this”, or “Can you imagine how many people had to approve this before it could be marketed?”. And you’d be right: this is a hoax made by Obvious Plant’s Jeff Wysaki.

But are you sure you’ve never used products whose sole purpose it was to save a little time without creating any actual value? Look closely, take a look at… your phone, for instance.

Are Products promoting digital laziness?

Really think about it. How many apps bring nothing but a slight time save? Pre-cracked eggs are littering our digital environment and fighting a bloody, notification-based war to claim our attention.

Some successful products are based solely on our tendency towards laziness. Take Netflix. Most of the techniques they implement aim for one thing: to make us consume more content. The most typical example is the “next episode in 15 seconds” feature (the waiting time even shrunk to 5 seconds for some original Netflix shows).

Is the content itself better? No. But is the experience more enjoyable/seamless? Yes. Because the feature spares you the effort of making a decision (and that of hitting a key on your keyboard). So why does Netflix incentivise binge watching even though they don’t get any direct monetary benefit based on the volume of viewed content? Because it keeps you from investing your precious attention into other activities that might end up reducing your Netflix time.

The problem is that one of these “alternative activities” is… sleep. All Netflix users know the recurring dilemma of “going to bed vs. watching another episode”. The worst part is that Netflix seems completely OK with that fact, baiting us to binge-watch episode after episode.

According to INSERM figures, the French sleep on average 1.5 hours less than they did 50 years ago, and every third French person is experiencing some kind of sleep disorder. How much worse will these figures be made by Netflix in the future? Sadly, there’s little chance Netflix is keeping track of that metric.

Whether vocal or touch-based, virtual assistants are another means of digital laziness that is spreading its reach into our homes. One would think that the brands who design them emphasise the ways in which assistants can profoundly impact their customers’ lives for the better.

Were it so, Google would communicate about how RogerVoice uses its speech recognition technology to enable deaf or hard-of-hearing persons to have phone conversations.

Samsung would talk about Pontis, their project that enables people with disabilities to interact with their TV with their brains through a smart hat.

Alas, in our lazy world, brands communicate about little more than uses like listening to music or checking the weather without having to fish your phone out of your pocket…

Why do users chose the path of least effort?

But then why do users find such enjoyment in having the next episode play automatically without having to do anything?

It’s a consequence of the human brain being wired to minimise effort. Its operating system is split into two sub-systems, let’s call them Pinky and The Brain.

Pinky handles intuition, reflexes and emotions. The Brain manages reasoning, calculations and analytical thinking. The thing is, The Brain requires a lot of cheese energy to run. So unless there’s actual need, the user’s brain will lean towards listening to Pinky over The Brain, which explains sudden irrational cravings for grilled cheese.

User’s brains will take any shortcut they can if it’s less work, even though these shortcuts may sometimes lead them to make rash judgements about a situation or even to sometimes make decisions that go against their own interests. These shortcuts are due to what is commonly known as cognitive bias.

Why are we baffled by pre-cracked eggs but not by their digital counterpart?

Why on earth does the uselessness of apps seem less obvious to us in the digital realm? The problem is that we are dealing with “virtual” objects: lines of code are not tangible, e-mails and push notifications don’t end up cluttering dump stations, abandoned apps don’t litter up the environment. But most importantly, we don’t want to consider ourselves lazy, even though that truth clearly shines through in our actions. This is where another amazing feature of our brains comes in, namely the ability to generate cognitive dissonance. When a behavior and a belief clash together, our brains try to ignore the consequent “noise” as long as it does not cause more tension than is bearable. Basically our guilty intents are safeguarded as long as they don’t challenge the representation we have (or wish to have) of ourselves.

The Product dilemma: lowering friction vs. resistance

The laziness of our brains is the whole reason design and product have made it their life mission to “reduce friction”. Many new products are born out of the need to address frictions that arise in competitors’ products. Each cause for friction within a product can reduce usability (i.e. the user doesn’t have a clear understanding of how to use the interface) and fail to generate sufficient engagement (i.e. the user doesn’t have strong enough a wish to use the product).

Imagine you make the world’s best pizza but your restaurant’s front door is jammed (usability) and your menu doesn’t entice users enough to make them bother with the extra few steps to the other door (enticement). You have an interface design problem as well as an engagement and conversion problem, and you’ll likely go out of business before too long.

There are two paths to minimum-effort product value: either cut down on friction by unjamming the front door, or lower resistance by cracking the window and letting the delicious pizza aromas waft through to potential customers.

It’s certainly tempting to lower resistance by leveraging users’ biases in order to make them do what you wish them to. Fortnite is a great example here, as it has become a masterpiece of usability and enticement. The activation phase during which the user learns how to play the game and access the promised value has been refined to the point it’s become a textbook case (to those interested, here is a link to a recap of a recent co-talk with Celia Hodent, the ex-head of UX @Fortnite). The goal is simple: maximise fun for the user.

However, no safeguards have been implemented to cap the time spent playing or the money spent on in-game purchases. There’s no telling how many parents have had to cope with hundreds of dollars worth of bills over a couple days’ worth of their teenager buying mods and weapons, resulting in a prohibition to play for the teenager and broken trust for the parents.

The path of least effort is often paved with good intentions on the Product and Design side of things, but it doesn’t always end well for the user or indeed their family and friends.

Choosing between providing value vs. meaning

We designers have lazy brains just like users do. We are crippled with cognitive biases and often ignore cognitive dissonance. The path of least effort is just as attractive when it comes to making product, design or growth decisions. 

This is why we need to keep the following question in mind when designing products: “does the path on which I am urging the user lead him/her to a goal that makes sense? Or am I designing a ‘pre-cracked egg’ and refusing to see it?”

It may be our duty as product people to be humble and take a step back. Even though not everyone can create life-altering products and many of us are mostly creating pre-cracked eggs, we still have to do our best to take good care of our users.

At the very least we can be mindful of the impact our products have on user’s digital and physical environments. A user’s capacity for attention is finite and your product is just a detail in his or her life. Every bit of focus you draw from a user is that much attention they won’t be investing into another activity that may be more vital than a few extra minutes using your product, such as learning, sleeping, being social etc.

We focus so much on maximising our metrics that we forget to consider two essential questions: “What am I replacing?” and “Am I improving my user’s Return on Attention (RoA)?”

Also remember to refrain from using existing patterns without carefully analysing what their efficiency is based on, even if they come from trusted product sources such as Airbnb or Spotify. Dark patterns aren’t always easy to detect, and their poor ethics are mostly a matter of context. All patterns should be used with caution.

Finally, if you feel the drive to do so, use your energy to build products that address real problems, those that are truly worthy of being solved. Design things that deliver the best outcomes for users, rather than selfishly harvesting their attention.

Owning up to our digital responsibility as designers of products

Some of you are bound to shrug off this article and argue that users are responsible for their own actions. Or that Product Managers aren’t the ones who set their company’s objectives. Or that what they do is positively impacting the metrics their product’s performance is measured on and they’re totally free to refuse to challenge the status quo.

But if you feel this topic is something you want to think on some more, stay tuned for further articles in this series inquiring about building products that truly empower people in a respectful and sustainable way.

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