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Why Do Digital Products Make Us Unhappy?


Wait, what? I can hear the cries of “But our users spend more and more time using our product every month!” Or “Our product metrics are trending up significantly over time. We must be doing something right!?”

Well, that depends on who you ask and how you measure product success. It turns out, the more time we spend using certain products, the less happy we are.

Digital dissatisfaction is not limited to mobile apps, social media, or games. Physicians, for example, have been notoriously unsatisfied with Electronic Health Records (EHRs) and have resisted purchasing and installing them for years. It took a federal incentive program, the HITECH Act as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA), to push EHR adoption above 50%.


Despite this modest growth, more than 40% of hospital executives are still either indifferent or dissatisfied with their current EHR system. And 67% of providers report being unsatisfied with the functionality of their EHR system. It’s certainly not for lack of trying. There are almost 70% more vendors providing certified health IT products today than there were just 4 years ago. And they still aren’t getting it right for the end user – physicians!

Essentially, what the HITECH Act accomplished was “forced adoption” of technology that otherwise would have had to improve dramatically before it would be voluntarily adopted. That is, the Act did nothing to move the needle forward in support of a better user experience for physicians and other healthcare technology users.

Have Digital Product Creators Become the Cigarette Makers of The Modern Age?

However badly you want to believe you are a rational, incorruptible being, you are primarily driven by your primitive biology. Your body and brain are designed to fulfil the most basic needs first and it can be extremely difficult to overrule your “lizard-brain”. Just think of how hard it is to put down the cookie and head out for a run. It’s this basic fact that black-hat UX designers exploit. These bad-guys of UX are always on the lookout for ways to get the brain to respond to dopamine fixes and the associated feel-good responses. In a way, we’ve created a new breed of cigarette makers. The only difference is that these cigarettes steal your time and attention, not your lungs.

How bad has it gotten for physicians who adopt new digital experiences? So bad that many consider technology a factor in the growing national concern (some call it a crisis) over physician burnout. More than half of US physicians report experiencing at least one symptom of burnout – a substantial increase over previous years. This burnout affects nurses and support staff as well. After all, they are often the heaviest users of these hospital systems.

Hospital CEOs point to technology, specifically EHRs, as a key contributor to burnout. In a post to the Health Affairs Blog, a group of hospital CEOs noted that EHRs have “radically altered and disrupted established workflows and patient interactions, become a source of interruptions and distraction and are very time intensive.”

Outside of the hospital, employees in almost all businesses are challenged by alerts, messages, and professional and personal tasks that happen in the digital world. Keeping up and managing it all has become nearly impossible. How severe is our digital obsession? Severe enough that it has spawned new terms like FOMO (fear of missing out), FOBO (fear of being offline), and nomophobia (fear of being out of mobile phone contact).

The horrible truth is that digital tools used in the modern workplace make people unhappy. These clunky tools are job-centered, not human-centered. Like a modern farmer working with antique hand tools — the job can be done, but it is made unnecessarily complicated, increasingly unpleasant, and ultimately very frustrating.

The age of digital promised commercial efficiency and liberty from drudge, and yet those tools have done neither. Like industrial age toil, we’ve condemned people to spend most of their waking hours struggling with tools that make their lives worse. We’ve traded the shackles of cotton mills for digital terminals. We’ve traded soot-filled lungs and hazardous factories for crooked backs and depression. Dramatic? Maybe. But the examples above seem to indicate there’s no guarantee that digital tools offer any relief from the frustrations of interacting with others or getting our jobs done.

As the t-shirt says, we were promised flying cars and all we got was 140 characters.

As digital products fulfill more of our daily needs and become an inescapable part of our interactions with each other, we can no longer accept digital work tools that prevent us from becoming the version of ourselves that we want to be. If we are spending the majority of our lives, up to 10-hrs a day, interacting with digital tools, there is a real opportunity to affect people either positively or negatively. Thoughtful, value-driven, human-centered digital product design can enormously improve people’s daily lives at work. And in so doing, have a positive effect on their overall well being.

So What’s The Solution?

There are two avenues to solving this problem. The first is for consumers to be more aware of the addictiveness of these products. This can seem like a Band-Aid solution because we shouldn’t be expecting the end user to take responsibility for either poorly considered design or deliberate unethical tricks. Furthermore, a consumer will never be able to keep pace with the “tricks of the trade” being researched and implemented by black-hat UX people. As fast as the end user learns of these methods, the faster the bad guys will invent something new to catch their attention. Technology companies are only just now starting to grapple with how to deliver an experience that avoids the dark side of the digital world. The more reasonable approach is for all product creators to take the high road and design products that deliver happiness and value. Let’s consider both avenues.

Consumer Taking Back Control

The Harvard Business Review sought the advice of two experts, one a psychologist and one a technologist, for strategies to solve the problem of digital overload. Their responses were pretty much in keeping with their backgrounds. Larry Rosen, a psychologist, suggested pushing away from the distractions by using behavioral principles to wean oneself from digital devices, taking a “recharging break” at regular intervals, and keeping technology out of the bedroom. But this alone doesn’t seem very practical in today’s workplace. Sadly, few of us can afford to take too much time off from these digital distractions. Most of us spend more than five hours a day on the Internet, and 64% of us worry when we don’t have access. Houston, we have a problem!

The technologist, Alexandra Samuel, recommends a bit more of a direct approach that involves the strategic use of digital tools. Samuel suggests that technology itself isn’t so much the problem – our use of it is the issue. Filtering rules for email, news readers like feedly, Flipboard, and Reader, and social scheduling tools like Hootsuite offer functionality to help cut down on the noise and bubble up the most important and immediate digital information requiring our attention.

Designers Doing The Right Thing

The foundational solution to our addiction and distraction rests firmly with product design. Too many digital tools aren’t designed for the user. Products should be designed with the goal of making the user more efficient or making their lives better. Digital tools should adapt to how people live their lives rather than people adapting to the tools. If the healthcare system of the future is supposed to be patient- and provider-centric, then everything we design must have the user experience of the patient and the provider in mind. With a few exceptions, this has not been the case. Systems have been designed to support many of the business aspects of running a hospital, a lab, or a physician practice – workflow designed for patient scheduling, billing, and hospital operations. These same systems have been wedged into the clinical workflow at great cost to clinical efficiency. It’s still more efficient for physicians to work off paper than use electronic systems! And so physicians still make the very rational decision to continue using paper charts rather than adopt EHRs at a meaningful level.

Working with ethically positive and thoughtful long-term design methods commits you to aligning the long-term health and happiness of your customers with your business goals. This can be incorporated into your brand and become a powerful differentiator and driver of company value. In the immediate term, brands win because consumers recognize that they are not stealing their attention and time. Over time this immediate value translates into trust – the Holy Grail of brand loyalty. Our clients get projects done through a combination of bulletproof project management and dedicated UX/UI design teams with specific expertise designing for complex industries with hard-to-understand technology and multiple user types.

Why We Do What We Do

The future of product is far more interesting when we’re using our understanding of humans and technology to create experiences that are rewarding and enjoyable, regardless of where and when they are used. At Fresh Tilled Soil, we design experiences that make life better. Sounds pretty aspirational, doesn’t it? Rather than go into detail about how “what” we do is unique, it might be better to explain “why” we do it. Why are we so passionate about making life better, and how does this vision translate into our work?

We seek to improve human lives in an empathetic way through thoughtful, intentional, and human-centered design. We confront complex problems and create digital solutions that are surprisingly pleasant to use, because we believe people have a right to grief-free digital tools. Our mission is to enable people to accomplish more in less time with powerful digital products. This means understanding human behavior as deeply as technology. Using empathy, human emotion, and other lessons from biology to deliver successful UX projects and design products of the future.

Our CEO, Richard Banfield, gave a talk recently on the biology behind engaging design. Take a look at the slides, and let us know if you’d like to discuss a project in need of engaging design!

You can also watch a version of his presentation delivered at the MacEwan University Design Studies Program earlier this year.

Author Heath Umbach

Heath is an avid cyclist and runner who brings athletic rigor to everything he touches. With over 15 years of experience building and marketing digital products, he has a deep passion for solving our clients’ greatest challenges.

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