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Wired - Let's Have More Psych-Positive Technology

March 9, 2015

This article was first seen on – Wired

Metrics are a powerful way to manage a business, but also a narrow one. Arguably the concerns that are emerging over the impact of technology on our brains are because of the tech industry’s focus on narrow metrics. Hopefully in 2015 we will start to see this change.

In one sense slot machines are the archetype of successful design in the tech industry. Computerisation has taken them from a distraction for little old ladies to the source of 85% of the gambling industry’s profits in North America. Technology has enabled these machines to precisely manipulate the odds, to eliminate the need to feed in coins and even to be so ergonomic in their design that people can sit at them for longer.

It’s a fascinating example of how much of today’s tech industry is really a psychology industry. Today’s slot machines are designed to optimize the amount of time a person plays. And they do this by allowing the user to bet on thousands of lines at a time, giving a steady (but random) drip feed of rewards – flashing lights, sounds and feedback that are actually more powerful than money at encouraging players to stay for longer.

Optimising around key business metrics is what the tech industry does best. Whether its daily users, time with an app, or average revenue per user, all the tech giants have in some sense cracked the psychological code for users in their category. For Amazon it might be product recommendations, for Facebook it’s choosing which posts show up in the feed and for Candy Crush Saga its knowing what to offer for free, and what to charge for.

This psych-tech fusion is certainly powerful, certainly lucrative, but is it a good thing?

Firstly it’s a fine line between a product being “sticky” and it being addictive. Gambling is certainly addictive – and debate rages fiercely about whether technology can be considered addictive in the same way. Psychologically, the evidence seems to suggest that it can – brains respond equally strongly to in-game rewards as they do to pleasurable ‘real’ stimuli.

Secondly there appear to be multiple negative psychological consequences to the use of successful tech products. We’ve seen studies showing reduced attention spans, memory problems, increases in distractibility, feelings of social isolation and mood swings. And while google has certainly succeeded at making the world’s information more accessible, perhaps in so doing it has created a generation who are less curious and less inventive.

And this is not just limited to consumer products. There is a rush to automate functions like flying airplanes, driving cars, diagnosing diseases and making business decisions but evidence is beginning to accumulate that doing so makes human errors more catastrophic, and creates as many problems as are solved (as well as eliminating meaningful jobs).

Finally there are the physical consequences – repetitive strain injuries, lack of exercise, poor eyesight.

Essentially this adds up to the age-old story that what you measure determines what you get. If all we measure is revenue, user numbers, and time spent using the technology, is it any wonder that we end up with something that resembles the virtual equivalent of addictive drugs?

Despite the “making the world a better place” rhetoric very few companies are trying to optimize their products for positive physical and psychological outcomes. But there are some signs that such a thing is possible. Headspace have made headlines this year by amassing 500k users for their mobile meditation app. Government bodies like Public Health England are working with Psychologists like Richard Wiseman to try to create technological fixes for lifestyle diseases.

Some things that it would be great to see in 2015 are: Facebook optimizing the newsfeed to help its users grow and develop, not just click. Amazon optimizing recommendations for user satisfaction, not just purchase. Brain-training that actually works. Services that allow people to better understand themselves, make better decisions, become happier.

Metrics and optimization can work wonders – maybe in the new year businesses can set better targets for their products and ensure that the successes of our era are seen as beneficial not just lucrative.

Jacob Wright

Jacob Wright is Head of Strategy at VisualDNA.