Design Suggestions Inspired from Netflix’s The Social Dilemma
Facebook in Recent Events
Facebook is no stranger to controversy and legal entanglements, ranging from Zuckerberg’s disputed ownership of the original networking site idea, to the 2016 Russian general election disinformation-influence campaign seared into every American’s consciousness.
Most recently, tech moguls of social networking giants Facebook, Twitter, and Google testified in Senate hearings regarding section 230, a law that protects third party platforms from the consequences of user’s posts, also granting companies the right to police and remove content as they see fit. The hearing consisted of hours of senators railing against the executives, accusing them of an inherent liberal bias, and disproportionately censoring conservative opinions.
But, I digress.
The Social Dilemma
The Social Dilemma, a concise and illuminating look into the ethical implications of social media in our everyday lives, delivers to the audience what tech moguls have known for years. Social media is collecting data on users every time we turn on our phones; contributing to startling mental health statistics, raising privacy concerns, influencing our elections, and perhaps most disturbing, modifying our behavior.
The film has been both lauded for its candid look at how social media has impacted our daily lives, while also garnering criticism for the lack of solutions offered.
While I can’t suggest solutions to curb eerily accurate AI algorithm predictions their engineers scarcely understand, I can look at Facebook from a design standpoint, and identify design changes that would decrease the addictive tendencies and mindless scrolling.
Good UX designers at their core use psychology principles surrounding information architecture, color theory, and user behavior to make important design decisions. These design decisions are meant to make applications as intuitive and easy to navigate as possible. But yes, when taken to the extreme with few guardrails in place, it crosses the line from the coveted status of “a delightful experience” to downright addictive.
The following design features are regularly cited as those believed to be the most addictive and habit-forming forces on these platforms:
1. Infinite scroll — Also known as the news feed that never ends
2. Automatic play — Most commonly used for videos embedded in newsfeeds
3. Variable rewards — Burst of likes and comments, notifications, messages, and colors
4. Interaction design elements — sounds and vibrations when you “like,” comment or post on the platform
Tristan Harris described these sites as a “race to the bottom of the brain stem,” tapping into our most “primitive emotions” like fear and anxiety, all through manipulating our basic needs for community, acceptance, and fears of isolation.
Infinite scroll does a good job of cultivating a healthy dose of FOMO, encouraging us to stay on apps longer. Automatic play helps steamroll our abilities to stop and reflect long enough to close the app. Add in fun design elements like colors, sounds, coupled with the anticipation of variable rewards from notifications, and our habit of frequently checking our phones is solidified.
Solutions to Research-Backed Addictive Features
There are some easy immediate fixes that could be implemented to reduce the addictive nature of the app.
1) Infinite Scroll
Implementing a “You’re all caught up” notice is a great feature to extend to all social media applications, not only Instagram.
2) Automatic Play
Facebook does have an option to turn off automatic play, but requires users to dig in settings to change this default. This should be set to “Off” as a default, with an opt-in option to allow automatic play.
3) Variable Rewards
This is a tricky one that plays right into our psychology. Notifications should not be metered or sent “in sudden bursts.” This “primes our dopamine centers” to search for a larger reward later on. Rather, notifications should be sent as they occur. Or, better yet, an elimination of the red notification number altogether — opting for a single email summarizing activity throughout the day.
My Design Suggestions
In addition to the researched, and well-known attributes that make Facebook addicting, I pose two overarching areas for improvement that play to UX trends; less redundancy and greater customization power.
On the home page below I point out four features that are shown in multiple places on the desktop home screen. Not only does this visually clutter the home page, but increases cognitive load when trying to execute tasks, and takes up valuable real estate that could either be used for more enriching features, or allow the eye to rest in negative space. The redundant features highlighted here are video (Watch), Marketplace, Groups, and Chat.
Greater Feed Customization
Facebook has been around long enough to be a good candidate for allowing greater user customization. Personally, I will never use the gaming tab, I stopped wishing acquaintances a happy birthday on Facebook years ago, and I will probably never use the Facebook dating feature. I also rarely find the Stories my friends post as essential to my viewing experience. I would even consider a paid subscription to reduce the ads that appear in the side panels, as well as those directly embedded in my home feed.
Instead, I desperately want a way to view a feed of just my closest friends. The “friend lists” feature has such potential to bring Facebook back to what it originally was — a place to keep up to date with those we hold dearest, free of pretension and constant visual assault.
(This is what the layout would look like sans the redundancies and the fields I have deemed superfluous — like ads, stories, and the tab for gaming.)
As it stands now, Facebook allows users to create lists to dictate subsets of “friends” who are able to view certain posts. But that is the extent of the feature. In my redesign, I have placed these “friends lists” — “close friends,” “family,” “acquaintances,” “outer circle” — as alternative feeds that are populated with posts only from those belonging to the curated feed. This would encourage more meaningful interaction and foster a greater sense of control over our various feeds.
(With this redesign I have removed the distracting and redundant features and left some negative space for the viewer’s eye to rest. I have eliminated the tabs and replaced them with the friend lists I have designated. I have also moved around and consolidated some features to the left side bar.)
Overall, this was a thought-provoking exercise in design, inspired by The Social Dilemma to create a more ethical Facebook application.
Ultimately, Facebook is well aware of its product’s addictive design elements, and has every conceivable resource available to improve the lives of its users. But, fewer logons means less traffic, less engagement, less data to make precise predictive models, less reach for ads, fewer happy advertisers, and less money. Keeping audiences addicted is in its best interest.
As powerful corporations have proven time and time again, they are notoriously bad at the prospect of self-policing. Even when companies face monetary and legal penalties, many would rather opt to deploy armies of lawyers to fight litigation, file counter suits, exploit loopholes, or simply pay fines before complying with regulations. And, as was painfully obvious in the Senate hearings in 2018 regarding Russia’s interference in our 2016 election, most law-makers have a woefully underdeveloped knowledge of social media with barely the proper vocabulary to discuss these indictments.
So, until legislation has caught up to the ethical implications of addictive applications, like Facebook, the responsibility of looking after our own digital and physical health, inevitably falls to each user.
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Anne-Marie Lloyd is a market research analyst and UX designer. She’s currently perfecting her UX portfolio and doing freelance work. Check out her website here.