This Christmas, demand the right to a silent night

Usability is about lifestyle impact, not just ease-of-use

A few months back I spied a rare, spare week in my schedule and decided to turn it into a fortnight’s ‘staycation’. I’d stick around the house, but do no work whatsoever.

I had no idea that would make people so angry.

I didn’t simply disappear. After ensuring everything would keep ticking over in my absence, I activated the vacation responder on my email, so people would know when they could expect to hear from me.

That used to be enough. Folks would receive that message and respect it. But something’s changed.

Returning from holidays I found an angry set of demands for my time and attention. Nothing serious, certainly nothing that could qualify as an emergency, just the whinging of folks who have come to believe continuous availability should extend to individuals.

Computers run 24x7. We can now do our banking from a mobile at 3:00AM on a passenger train between Shanghai and Beijing. This has given us a false impression that all of human culture has become equally available. People can’t live up to those sorts of demands.

In some significant ways our incredible tech advances have infantilized us. We expect to be nursed and soothed as needed, and grow very fussy when we feel those demands haven’t been met.

Half a century ago, Marshall McLuhan wrote, “First we shape our tools, then our tools shape us.” An always-on world of information and connection has warped our world views. We now view our social interactions through a prism shaped by the constant capacity of machines.

A process that kicked off with the noble desire to make things more convenient for ourselves has ended up making things more inconvenient for most of us. Worse still, we’ve started to lean into this inconvenience. An infrastructure of ‘notifications’ greets us on nearly every screen, from laptop to smartphone to wearable. We learn of new emails and Facebook posts and instant messages, whether or not they’re relevant to us at that moment in time.

With every notification we surrender some of our own space for thinking and feeling and being, handing it over to systems designed by folks who thought more about capacity than capaciousness. That emphasis on continual connectivity and awareness ends up only dulling our attention.

Connectivity is fantastic - up to a point. Beyond that, it generates a very well-informed state of idiocy. We are not at our best when interrupt driven. We need context and continuity and concentration. The devices we crafted to support these states of mind now overawe our attention.

I’m not suggesting we abandon the infrastructure of connectivity. The problem doesn’t lie with connectivity, but in how we make use of it. Rather than leaning into the noise, we could walk another path.

At this year's Web Directions conference, nearly every speaker touched a different aspect of empathy as an integral element of user experience. We have delivered amazing, responsive systems, making them easy to use, but neglected to account for what happens to us when we use them. Designers need to put themselves into the equation, feeling through what it means to handle their tools every minute of every day - as their customers will. First we shape our tools, then our tools shape our customers.

This is no longer an essentially technical question, but one that touches on psychology, anthropology, and cultural understanding. These tools that shape us determine the shape of our societies. Designs needs to be carefully considered in light of their long-term effects.

We’re already living with some of those effects, harbouring an unsupportable expectation that people will behave a lot like machines, becoming enraged when they display any of the human characteristics we would unthinkingly allow ourselves. Mediated by machines, we forget the human on the other side.

A world filled with machines remains stubbornly human. We can not march to a gigahertz clock, so everywhere the the world of flesh touches the world of silicon it leaves us bruised. Though we believe we can, we can never keep pace, so we are continuously disappointed when the human world falls short of the machine’s promise.

But our failures help us to forgive others, while the failures of others help us to accept the world as it is - imperfect.

We need to design a world that frames human frailties as positive qualities, one that recognizes that it is within quiet moments we find our inspiration, that from our disappointments, we learn resilience. Machines may never err, but that doesn’t mean we need to emulate them. To err is human, and for that reason, miraculous.

Over this holiday season - when so much happens so quickly - step away from devices and notifications, and find some silence. Silence is a gift that keeps on giving. ®

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