Designing responsibly in the attention economy

The O’Reilly Design Podcast: Tristan Harris on design ethics and leaving things better than you find them.

By Mary Treseler
September 2, 2015
"Der Herbst." "Der Herbst." (source: Wikimedia Commons)

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In this week’s Design Podcast episode, I sit down with Tristan Harris, design thinker, entrepreneur, and philosopher at Google, and speaker at O’Reilly’s first design conference.

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Harris talks about Design for Time Well Spent, the Doubt Club, and why it’s important to leave things better than you find them.

Here are a few highlights from our chat:

I think one aspect of why designers need to design responsibly is this new scale, this new proportion of influence and impact — because one choice about whether something takes five seconds of someone’s life versus one second of someone’s life gets multiplied by a billion people.

Even when the intention is very good and very positive, it devolves into what I’ve called the ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem’ to seduce people’s psychological instincts. The best way to get time from people, the best way to seduce or get their attention, is to use people’s psychological biases in a way that gets them to come back or stay.

Part of being ethical means being deeply thoughtful, comprehensive — not just optimistic about the one goal that you have, but to see where that goal might break down.

We start our meetup’s with a little exercise that we call ‘Doubt Club,’ where we go around the room and introduce ourselves and also introduce a doubt about a metric that we once had and optimized for—it’s a way of creating the kind of tone that it’s not about just living in blind optimism, but it’s about saying where might we have felt that our way of measuring success contradicted what was good for people.

We need to shift to something that’s not only about avoiding harm or preventing harm, but actually doing good, leaving things better than you found them, being regenerative. [Jeffrey Hollender’s] Net Positive Business is kind of a new sustainability business movement that is trying to create incentives and corporate governance structures, similar to what B Corps are doing for corporations.

You can listen to the podcast in the player above or subscribe on Stitcher, TuneIn, iTunes, or SoundCloud.

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