Making the web more humane

nature scenery

Have you ever experienced feeling overwhelmed or paralysed with too much information and digital clutter? As a sensitive feeler, I definitely have and there were many times when I fantasised about completely running away from digital technology, and adopting an offline lifestyle – which may sound ridiculous for a person whose job relies on digital technology and the internet.

We live in a world where the ideology of infinite growth and more technology being a solution for everything is deeply ingrained in all aspects of our lives. When we go online, we are attacked with information and marketing tactics from all angles because the common way of designing digital services is motivated by advertising, data brokering and exponential profit. It overlooks the emotional health and wellbeing of the human being at the other of the screen.

All the same, for most people, it’s unrealistic to live off the grid and it’s hard to protect ourselves from this overwhelm because our work and social networks require us to stay plugged into the web. As a web designer, I can’t completely rebel against the “traditional” strategies of web design and digital marketing because at the end of the day we need to make a living in the capitalist economy, and with the market being ultra-competitive in every area it’s even harder to survive for small and creative businesses.

So when I came across the topic of humane design and technology, I felt intrigued and hopeful. Maybe, we can design digital services in a way that places more focus on human wellbeing and it doesn’t equal a huge sacrifice for our business.

“Design must be the bridge between human needs, culture and ecology”― Victor Papanek

Creating anything has implications on the world around us.

In the context of designing digital services, every design decision is a decision made on behalf of our users and it has some impact on them. So whether we acknowledge it or not it carries some ethical, cultural, social, ecological responsibility.

In web design, like in many aspects of our life, we often tend to do things because they become a habit or universal practice we see everyone following, and we don’t question their actual impact. And what has become a standard way of doing things is essentially an attention and surveillance capitalism based on a business model where human attention is commodified.

Give users what they “want”.

Disrupt everything.

Technology is neutral.

Growth at all costs.

Design to convert users.

Obsess over metrics.

Does that sound familiar?

How many websites have you seen that are needlessly complex, cluttered with unnecessary information, or deceptive? We don’t have to look far to see a web full of dark patters and bullshit, which assaults our senses in a desperate attempt to capture our attention and coerce us into doing things that we don’t actually want to do.

Awareness and care are the first steps to a socially responsible design

When I speak about adopting a more ethical, human-centered approach, I don’t mean it as some romantic ideal detached from the real world.

Considering the implications of our decisions, trying our best to produce work in attuned congruence to our values, learning, and trying to find better, more aligned ways of doing things should be a fundamental part of our everyday process as creators.

It’s not about reaching perfection or finding an ultimate solution but doing our best and leading by example to make things better for the world one step at a time. 

And we don’t need to do anything radical to start making a positive impact.

In my mind, being conscious of our impact, engaging in these thought processes, being curious and open-minded about changing the ways of doing things to be more ethical and more sustainable, is already a win.

Simply taking care, being mindful, rather than blindly following the established - purely economically oriented - patterns already puts us in a great frame of mind. It’s not about achieving a perfect result but the process of getting there. And if in this process we raise the consciousness of ourselves and others, it’s worth it. 

Designing for humans

Center for Humane Tech proposes adopting an ethical approach to designing technology. 

It encapsulates the idea that as human beings we are already brilliant at things like empathy, connecting with each other, so when we design products we should aim to strengthen these things instead of trying to disrupt them. We should design to enhance human wisdom and capacity for choice making. And nurture mindfulness instead of always demanding more attention.

So how would that work in practice?

Of course, we create an online presence because we want to achieve something. 

You might ask – is shifting website focus from strategic in the business sense to prioritising care going to work?

I think the answer is yes.  For example, supporting people in making wise choices means helping people find efficiently what they need and providing relatable, easy-to-understand information. We can help people understand and feel whether what you’re offering them is aligned with their needs and values. This is nothing but a good user experience.

In an increasingly complex and manipulative world, people appreciate honesty, transparency and simplicity. 

We are attracted to what feels human and genuine to us, the real person behind the website.

I believe a good website doesn’t need aggressive attention-grabbing and excessive marketing to be effective. 

If we combine good design (= sustainable) with authenticity we are already winning.

If someone connects to our story when visiting our website and it’s easy and enjoyable for them to find what they are looking for then, we don’t need aggressive attention-grabbing and coercive marketing to make them buy from us. 

I often see websites that try very hard to follow every strategy in a “build-a-high-conversion website” handbook, but have issues with basic things that should work on a website - they take ages to load, they are hard to read and there is so much of information and calls-to-action that I’m just left feeling overwhelmed.  

Bottom line – maybe we don’t need to engineer and strategise everything to sell our services. At the other end of the screen, there is a human and as humans, we know how to connect with each other in a natural way.

Breaking patterns isn’t easy

It takes more care and effort to break away from the (often far from good) ways of doing things.

But a change will only happen if we take responsibility and act, individually and collectively.

Hopefully, over time, this will result in more ethical patterns in place and the ethical will become a new norm.

Let’s help make the internet a better and safer environment for everyone.