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Sunday Reading: Thoughts on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids

Reflecting on The Tech Industry’s War on Kids: How psychology is being used as a weapon against children

Richard Freed is a child psychologist who focuses on helping families work through “extreme overuse of phones, video games, and social media.”

Preteen and teen girls refuse to get off their phones, even though it’s remarkably clear that the devices are making them miserable. I also see far too many boys whose gaming obsessions lead them to forgo interest in school, extracurricular activities, and anything else productive. Some of these boys, as they reach their later teens, use their large bodies to terrorize parents who attempt to set gaming limits. A common thread running through many of these cases is parent guilt, as so many are certain they did something to put their kids on a destructive path.

Kids might be struggling with technology, but adults may also act like children if older folks had to go a day without technology. Maybe we should all take a digital detox.

Captology

BJ Fogg directs the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. There is tons of research and design practices used by today’s most popular apps, websites, and games, but we can still use this newfound power for good. Although, whether good or bad, the techniques are still shaping human behavior without consent.

Fogg’s website also has lately undergone a substantial makeover, as he now seems to go out of his way to suggest his work has benevolent aims, commenting, “I teach good people how behavior works so they can create products & services that benefit everyday people around the world.” Likewise, the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab website optimistically claims, “Persuasive technologies can bring about positive changes in many domains, including health, business, safety, and education. We also believe that new advances in technology can help promote world peace in 30 years.”

Why don’t we make it easy for kids and adults to spend their time doing the things society deems productive. Part of the challenge is exposing kids to new opportunities and experiences to help them understand their real world potential, even at their age.

While persuasion techniques work well on adults, they are particularly effective at influencing the still-maturing child and teen brain. “Video games, better than anything else in our culture, deliver rewards to people, especially teenage boys,” says Fogg. “Teenage boys are wired to seek competency. To master our world and get better at stuff. Video games, in dishing out rewards, can convey to people that their competency is growing, you can get better at something second by second.” And it’s persuasive design that’s helped convince this generation of boys they are gaining “competency” by spending countless hours on game sites, when the sad reality is they are locked away in their rooms gaming, ignoring school, and not developing the real-world competencies that colleges and employers demand.

Motivation/inspiration, Ability/capability, Trigger/feedback

According to B.J. Fogg, the “Fogg Behavior Model” is a well-tested method to change behavior and, in its simplified form, involves three primary factors: motivation, ability, and triggers. Describing how his formula is effective at getting people to use a social network, the psychologist says in an academic paper that a key motivator is users’ desire for “social acceptance,” although he says an even more powerful motivator is the desire “to avoid being socially rejected.” Regarding ability, Fogg suggests that digital products should be made so that users don’t have to “think hard.” Hence, social networks are designed for ease of use. Finally, Fogg says that potential users need to be triggered to use a site. This is accomplished by a myriad of digital tricks, including the sending of incessant notifications urging users to view friends’ pictures, telling them they are missing out while not on the social network, or suggesting that they check — yet again — to see if anyone liked their post or photo.

It seems we should be able to reframe the three motivation, ability, and triggers behavioral factors into a more productive framing of inspiration, capability, and reinforcement. For example, a kid who enjoys watching YouTube creators may be inspired to make a channel of their own. YouTube, influencers, or another service, can help kids build their movie making capabilities. Feedback on work can help reinforce learning and growth. In the end, kids are still spending time where they want to, but the behavioral model focuses on a healthy balance of creation and consumption leading to development in modern day, “real world capabilities”.

Mostly terrifying

the startup Dopamine Labs boasts about its use of persuasive techniques to increase profits: “Connect your app to our Persuasive AI [Artificial Intelligence] and lift your engagement and revenue up to 30% by giving your users our perfect bursts of dopamine,” and “A burst of Dopamine doesn’t just feel good: it’s proven to re-wire user behavior and habits.”

Ramsay Brown, the founder of Dopamine Labs, says in a KQED Science article, “We have now developed a rigorous technology of the human mind, and that is both exciting and terrifying. We have the ability to twiddle some knobs in a machine learning dashboard we build, and around the world hundreds of thousands of people are going to quietly change their behavior in ways that, unbeknownst to them, feel second-nature but are really by design.”

Facebook Messenger Kids

How has the consumer tech industry responded to these calls for change? By going even lower. Facebook recently launched Messenger Kids, a social media app that will reach kids as young as five years old. Suggestive that harmful persuasive design is now honing in on very young children is the declaration of Messenger Kids Art Director, Shiu Pei Luu, “We want to help foster communication [on Facebook] and make that the most exciting thing you want to be doing.”

Facebook’s narrow-minded vision of childhood is reflective of how out of touch the social network and other consumer tech companies are with the needs of an increasingly troubled generation. The most “exciting thing” for young children should be spending time with family, playing outside, engaging in creative play, and other vital developmental experiences — not being drawn into the social media vortex on phones or tablets. Moreover, Facebook Messenger Kids is giving an early start to the wired life on social media that we know poses risks of depression and suicide-related behavior for older children.

In response to the release of Facebook’s Messenger Kids, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) sent Facebook a letter signed by numerous health advocates calling on the company to pull the plug on the app. Facebook has yet to respond to the letter and instead continues to aggressively market Messenger Kids for young children.

Conscious workflows vs impulsive habits

President John F. Kennedy’s prescient guidance: He said that technology “has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man.”

From Cal Newport:

Workflows are arguably more important than your high-level habits when it comes to impacting how effectively you produce valuable things (my preferred definition of “productivity”), but they’re a topic that’s often ignored.

Indeed, for most people, the workflows that drive their professional life are processes that haphazardly arose without much intention or consideration.

This fall, in other words, consider spending some serious time evaluating your workflows before turning your attention to the habits that help you deal with the obligations these flows generate.

Technology gives us the tools to do more. It’s up to us to decide how we leverage our new powers.

The best analogy I’ve ever heard is Scientific American, I think it was, did a study in the early 70s on the efficiency of locomotion, and what they did was for all different species of things in the planet, birds and cats and dogs and fish and goats and stuff, they measured how much energy does it take for a goat to get from here to there. Kilocalories per kilometer or something, I don’t know what they measured. And they ranked them, they published the list, and the Condor won. The Condor took the least amount of energy to get from here to there. Man was didn’t do so well, came in with a rather unimpressive showing about a third of the way down the list.

But fortunately someone at Scientific American was insightful enough to test a man with a bicycle, and man with a bicycle won. Twice as good as the Condor, all the way off the list. And what it showed was that man is a toolmaker, has the ability to make a tool to amplify an inherent ability that he has. And that’s exactly what we’re doing here.

Additional reading

BJ Fogg commented on the article and provided a list of his works to raise awareness about the ethics of persuasive tech.

A recent Atlantic article, “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” by Dr. Jean Twenge

Stratechery article on Tech’s Two Philosophies: Some problems are best solved by human ingenuity; others by collective action

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Workplace Design

My team is moving back from open to private offices, so it’s an opportune time to find inspiration for the new space. There are all sorts of studies about collaboration and productivity level in open space vs closed offices, but Joel Spolsky and Anil Dash from Stack Overflow and Fog Creek have perspectives from the lens of software engineers that still hold nearly fifteen years later.

Office space seems to be the one thing that nobody can get right and nobody can do anything about. There’s a ten year lease, and whenever the company moves the last person anybody asks about how to design the space is the manager of the software team, who finds out what his new veal-fattening pens, uh, cubicle farm is going to be like for the first time on the Monday after the move-in.

Well, it’s my own damn company and I can do something about it, so I did.

Bionic Office by Joel Spolsky

Mindset

Building great office space for software developers serves two purposes: increased productivity, and increased recruiting pull. Private offices with doors that close prevent programmers from interruptions allowing them to concentrate on code without being forced to stop and listen to every interesting conversation in the room. And the nice offices wow our job candidates, making it easier for us to attract, hire, and retain the great developers we need to make software profitably. It’s worth it, especially in a world where so many software jobs provide only the most rudimentary and depressing cubicle farms.

The New Fog Creek Office by Joel Spolsky

Just take a look at the long list of requirements for the office space:

  • Gobs of well-lit perimeter offices
  • Desks designed for programming
  • Glass whiteboards
  • Coffee bar and lunchroom
  • A huge salt water aquarium
  • Plenty of meeting space
  • A library
  • A shower
  • Wood floors, carpet, concrete

The link to photos of the space is broken, but not because the space didn’t work out; Joel’s ideas on workplace design outlasted Picasa. Luckily the NYTimes article on the Fog Creek office still has a few thumbnail sized images. Plus street view is still a thing.

They used bold, playful colors and bright common areas to foster in-the-trenches camaraderie and created private soundproof offices where the programmers can go to get their jobs done.

A Software Designer Knows His Office Space, Too via NYTimes

Spolsky wanted a space designed intentionally for deep work and collaboration, and he put a considerable amount of thought to ensure he built a productive environment for the people at Fog Creek. It paid off.

Results

Spolsky has a treasure trove of knowledge on his blog that spills out amongst others on his team. The rich history is pervasive across those he influences.

With a private office, you’re in control of your space and attention: you can choose when to close the door and avoid interruptions, and when to go play ping-pong, talk with coworkers or work out of the coffee bar. In an open office you’re at the mercy of the people around you: if they’re talking, the best you can do is crank up your headphones and hope to drown them out, and if they’re playing foosball then good luck.

Everybody has their own rhythm. People come in at different times, take breaks at different times, need to socialize at different times, and have their most productive hours at different times. Management’s job is to accommodate that and create a space where all those conflicting needs don’t congeal into a persistent hum of distraction — not to enforce some top-down ideal of openness and creativity. Private offices put the people who do the actual work in control.

Why We (Still) Believe in Private Offices by David Fullerton

Fullerton’s post shows how teams can create a “magnificent culture of non-distraction” by using technology to keep people in control of how they work. At first, the idea typing out a chat, going back and forth seems less efficient than tapping someone on the shoulder for help, but leveraging technology as a tool to help people stay in the flow actually makes sense.

Whenever we get a new hire in the office, I make it a point to sit down with them in their first week and explain that they should not go to someone’s office when they have a question. Instead, ping them in chat and then jump on a hangout. The result is exactly the sort of culture that open offices are supposed to promote but better:

  • If someone else sees the message, they can chime in with the answer
  • If someone else is interested in the discussion, they can jump onto the hangout
  • And, crucially, if someone is working heads-down and doesn’t want to be distracted, all they have to do is close the chat window.

But what about marketing and design? And how about expanding teams?

We don’t actually even give everyone private offices: some people are doubled up in offices, and the sales and marketing teams sit in larger open spaces because they feel that’s an important part of how they work.

Evolution

Putting employees first is always at the heart of how we create great places to work.

In 2017 Fog Creek moved to it’s fourth headquarters (1, 2, 3, 4). They could have recreated a bigger version of their office 3.0, but instead they reflected on their team dynamic and arrived at a design that allows people to work in a variety of ways. With a largely remote workforce and a larger percentage of people in non-technical roles, Anil Dash (Fog Creek CEO as of December 2016) understood the existing office design could be enhanced.

The new office also includes a variety of work spaces that accommodate different work modes. Anil mentioned personal offices for standalone work, but they also work well for collaborative work like pair programming. There are workstations for independent or individual co-working, and phone booths for external communication such as sales calls or podcast appearances. There’s also our conference room — known as the “quiet car” — which can be used across a number of different work modes. And true to the nature of our office being flexible and experimental, we are already re-configuring some of these spaces based on how we use them.

Beyond Open Offices: The New Fog Creek Headquarters by Maurice Cherry

Fog Creek treats their office like any other product they produce. With Spolsky at the helm, the company researched best designs, planned with it’s people in mind, built it’s ideal vision, and iterated on the product, improving with each new update.

As the company has grown and changed over the years, so has our office space. Joel’s grand visions for what a work environment should do for employees have been part of Fog Creek from the very beginning, and we have tried to honor that legacy. We also have plenty of plans for the future, and look forward to continuing our tradition of incubating new teams and ideas from within our company and beyond.

Inspiration

For those of you looking to revitalize your open space or bring the aesthetics of open plan spaces to a private office from Design Milk 2017 Where I Work Year in Review. Since these aren’t Fog Creek offices, the productivity may not be at the same level, but they look cool.

All the links

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com