The co-founders of digital design agency Six:Thirty share findings from a recent research project examining our ambivalent relationship with technology.
Member agency Six:Thirty has conducted research exploring how digital interaction is affecting the way we think, feel and act. Co-founders James Cuddy and Roman Levin explain the results of the study and how design can help encourage more positive behaviour.
The cost of being always connected
We are sitting in a pub on a Sunday watching the people next to us. Their gazes are half fixed on their phone screens. Some are hiding them under the table, messaging or scrolling on social media. Others openly keep their phones on the table while talking to each other.
To us, it looked like the death of conversation as we knew it.
With electronic devices increasingly prevalent across all aspects everyday life, the social and ethical implications of a digitally-dependent society are becoming more apparent.
But instead of simply taking a critical or sensationalist stance, we wanted to understand how they disrupt our daily lives, and test whether we can use design thinking to improve the situation.
We are what we make
Technology promises to liberate us, but this freedom comes at a price. The digitisation of our day-to-day lives brings unparalleled convenience and keeps us close to the people we love. Yet at the same time we feel rushed, isolated, and even enslaved by our devices.
As designers, we’re at the heart of this problem. The products and services we create mean we’re responsible in part for entrenching these negative behaviours. At the same time, we also have skills that give us the potential to address them.
We instigated the Unread Messages project to learn more about our relationship with technology, and explore how design might help address any harmful behaviours we’ve developed.
Rather than basing our work on presumptions about digital consumption, we wanted our solutions to be informed by solid insight. So we teamed up with Northstar, a leading consultancy, to gather some qualitative research.
Together, we set up an online forum where questions were posed to a group of participants. People were free to comment and interact with each other via the platform. After one month, we conducted further interviews with some of our most active members.
Three themes emerged from our research and conversations with the community.
The Curated Self
Constructing and maintaining a public persona is an age-old practice. People have always sought to manipulate information about themselves in a more favourable light. Social media is now allowing us to curate and create our identities online. But in a way that also places new demands on us.
One participant described that he was aware and completely comfortable with the fact that his online presence is highly curated.
We also found people discussing how they use different platforms to amplify and articulate various aspects of their personality. Just as we adapt to different social groups and situations in our lives offline, we do the same digitally.
“I use Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Behance, YouTube and other apps all for slightly different social purposes. It almost feels like I split my personality between these apps.”
Our respondents realised that they sometimes evaluated themselves and their lives in relation to the way other people present themselves on social media. And while they were conscious that the image people present is an idealised one, they still felt compelled to compare and compete.
Maintaining these online personas puts pressure on us, making it difficult to develop realistic expectations of ourselves and others. The challenge for designers is to address the anxieties these idealised lifestyles and curated identities can create.
Empowered but Dependent
We use digital tools to action even the most mundane tasks or access basic information. “Just Google it” has become a common refrain. As a result, our ability to judge, process, and deal with everyday matters independently has been severely diminished.
Research participants voiced their concern about their overdependence on technology. But, many mentioned that going ‘cold turkey’ would make life logistically difficult. Our online and offline lives are so closely integrated that we can’t simply switch off.
“I went without any mobile data for eight days recently, and realised on the third day that I had no way of reaching the restaurant I had arranged to meet my friends at for dinner...It was genuinely a bit unnerving to realise that I had completely lost that resourcefulness and become so reliant on a device.”
We turn to our devices as a comfort blanket to reassure us that we are making the right decisions. But are we losing important life skills through our over-reliance on digital? Or freeing ourselves up to enjoy our lives and think about more important things? Design can find ways to help us interrogate these questions.
Behaviours prompted by digital communication interfere with – and even shape – our daily activities.
Participants described that the ability to be always connected makes checking their devices too much to resist. This constant connectivity can lead to a of loss of control.
“I have to give myself a break from my phone, I’m constantly checking it. Half the time I don’t know what for.”
We heard people frequently express worries that they are “not living in the moment”. Some are torn between whether to experience the moment in real life, or capture it for their digital self. As one participant described,
“We’re seeing everything from once in a lifetime comets, to a first kiss as man and wife through 6x3 inch screens. We’re not seeing the big picture. Everything must be captured and saved. But in doing so we’re actually missing so much more.”
Designers need to find ways to help people regain control of their devices and communications channels. We need to ask how we can make device usage more appropriate to real life situations and, in turn, how the physical world can adapt to these new behaviours.
These three themes formed the basis of a creative brief, that we sent out to a group of artists and designers from around the world. The resulting products are purposefully eclectic, spanning digital, physical and even speculative design disciplines. They all directly address the issues identified through our research.
Designer Matteo Loglio produced Nomu, a physical interface that helps make internet usage more focussed and productive. It’s comprised of four coloured blocks representing different activities and time units, each connected to a browser plugin. These are then set to filter unwanted content, displaying only websites relevant to the predetermined activities.
Matteo’s piece empowers users to achieve their aims, whilst giving them the control to eliminate distractions. It shows how rethinking interaction patterns can enable us to use the internet more productively.
An interactive mirror by Venetian design practice Zanellato/Bortotto uses an LED lighting system housed behind a one-way mirror surface. When the lights are off, the mirror is completely reflective. When illuminated, it loses its reflectivity. These lights are connected to our online accounts. The more time we spend on social networks the brighter the light becomes, distorting our reflection in the mirror.
As our identities are increasingly filtered through technology, a simple everyday object like a mirror explores and exposes the relationship between our real and represented selves.
Diversity of thought
In recent years our relationship with technology has become more intimate and complex, throwing up a host of new challenges. The solutions to these issues require new approaches and perspectives. From the outset, Unread Messages placed diversity of thought at the core of the process. A problem faced by engineers can take inspiration from artists. UX designers can learn from filmmakers. And we can all learn from our audiences.
Ultimately, we believe we can improve our relationship with technology by being more open and inclusive. Through cross-disciplinary collaboration, we think design can lead the way to a better relationship with technology and, ultimately, with each other.
Illustrations by Member Ryan Gillett.
Work with our Members
We can help you to source and commission people and companies from within our network. To find out more email Dorcas Brown.