Digital technology is designed to engage. Our smartphones never miss an opportunity to interrupt a conversation with a buzz. Facebook takes advantage of reward pathways deeply rooted in our brains to entice us with likes, updates, and cat videos. And all the while, companies are vying to create a product that is more engaging, more addictive than the next.
We don’t live in a digital world, however, but in a physical, non-digital world. The more we engage with the digital world, the more we disengage from the world around us—from talking to our friends at the bar or our families at dinner, from enjoying our food or contemplating a beautiful sunset. But our attention is money. And as long as they can profit from it, the companies that make our beloved digital gadgets will be motivated to keep increasing our engagement—engagement with their products.
It’s time for a change.
User experience versus human experience
But before we get to what needs to change, we must first answer a more fundamental question. Why do we have technology? Why did our ancestors invent the wheel? Why did Steve Jobs invent the iPhone? The simple answer is, of course, to make our lives better. Not to improve our user experience but to improve our lives.
Sure, a better user experience can contribute to our overall happiness. But even in the digital age, it is our engagement with the non-digital world that is key to our well-being. Spending a day with our friends is better than spending a day on Facebook. Skiing in the Alps is better than skiing through our screens while playing a video game.
Of course, our digital and non-digital activities are not mutually exclusive sources of satisfaction. Except that, nowadays, they often are. When our computers were securely stuck atop our desks, we seldom had to worry about our digital engagement interfering with dinner conversations, driving, or family time in the park.
But today, we carry our computers in our pockets—we call them smartphones—taking them wherever we go and whatever we do. No activity is spared from the pings and dings and from our insatiable desire to check all those updates. Our devices are, after all, designed to engage—to capture our attention and hold it in their seductive power.
But if that engagement is taking away from other sources of happiness in our lives, then technology is failing to live up to its purpose and promise—to make our lives better. And to make our lives better, technology should be designed to support our basic psychological needs (and I don’t mean the need to check our phones).
Basic psychological needs
Psychologists have spent decades and have conducted a slew of studies and published thousands of papers trying to figure out what humans need to thrive—regardless of culture, upbringing, gender, or economic class. You might be familiar with one of the earliest models of human motivation: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Although this pyramid model has fallen out of favor in modern psychological science, our understanding of basic human needs has only deepened since Maslow’s pioneering work.
One of the most well-supported need models—self-determination theory—proposes at least three basic psychological needs:
- Autonomy: the need to feel we are in control of our behavior
- Competence: the need to feel mastery and control over our environment
- Relatedness: the need to feel a sense of connectedness, belonging, and community with others
Psychologically smart technology should understand those basic needs and should be designed to support them—even when that means reducing engagement with our devices. We spend more time in the company of our digital gadgets than we do with any of our friends and even our partners. It is only fair that these devices should learn a little a bit about what we need.
Psychologically smart tech
Smartphones are already, well, pretty smart. Using simple algorithms based on time, location, proximity to others, and environmental cues (e.g., noise), our smartphones can know with surprising accuracy what we are doing. Siri and Google are already listening in on our conversations, lest we need them. Isn’t it a shame that all these data are primarily being used to target us with advertising, to engage us with yet another product?
It is time for digital technology to live up to its true potential and start using data to make our lives better by supporting what we truly need—some time to disengage. When a father picks his child from school, a psychologically smart phone can switch off all email notifications while allowing notifications from his wife. When a couple is spending time together, their phones can switch off all news updates, saving them in a buffer to be delivered later. When a student is working on her paper, her phone can temporarily disable her social media feed so that she is less tempted to check in on her Instagram likes. These simple interventions can potentiate the benefits we reap from those activities that have been shown to satisfy our basic psychological needs.
It is time for our technologically smart devices to become psychologically smart.