The mathematical concept of optimisation dominates how many products and services we access are framed and sold to us. Optimise your life. Optimise your nutrition. Optimise your capital. Optimise your fitness. Optimise your assets.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this focus has seeped into digital product design, not just through activities such as conversion rate optimisation, but also wrapped into the promises of the world’s most popular digital products. Optimise your taxi experience. Optimise your accommodation experience. Optimise your dating experience. Optimise your food ordering experience.
The challenge with optimising an experience is that we all need to agree on what would make it better, and that’s not always straightforward. In the case of digital products, it is often assumed that the desired outcome is increased comfort and convenience.
On an individual transaction–by–transaction basis, it is pleasing to have increased comfort and convenience, however when you extrapolate all individuals to a societal level and all transactions to a lifetime, there are very significant trade–offs inherent within this pursuit which should cause us to pause. No one aspires to having the epitaph “He lived a comfortable and convenient life” for good reason.
In other words, we need to be much more deliberate about what we are optimising for.
To indulge in some design–thinking terminology we need to take a systems view of what we’re doing (what structure of human needs and aspirations do digital products sit within) and we need to focus much more on trade–offs (what do we lose when we gain comfort and convenience).
Abstraction from people and the earth
Since humans stopped being hunter gatherers, our relationship with the earth and other humans has been made more distant. The industrial and agricultural revolutions disconnected most of us from the production process of tools and food, meaning that knowledge which humankind possessed for millennia was lost. And with that came human behaviours which our forefathers would have found bewildering, such as expecting to be able to eat food out of season, and planning the obsolescence of the products which we own.
This abstraction has now reached the almost bizarre level of “life as a service” where any time we want to interact with people or the world around us, our default action is to pull our phone out of our pocket. We open an app and our dinner magically appears at the door an hour later, or we find a date in a new city or we crop, colour and perhaps even materially alter the photographs we’ve taken.
These apps reduce the distance between what we need to do and the result that we want, but in the process can take away some of the things which make life worth living. Photography and cooking are often better when they are slower. Life is a dance not a journey.
Inability to deal with any kind of inconvenience or discomfort
We have all been in social environments where people are shy and unsure how to act. Whether it’s a wedding where you’ve only just made the guest list and everyone else appears to know each other, or a business networking event with people staring into their coffee, or the first day in a new job, the urge can be overwhelming to stop being present, take out your phone and start doom–scrolling on social media.
In those moments we lose a chance to learn resilience and overcome awkwardness. When technology can remove discomfort, having to encounter real people can become a source of real anxiety. Anyone who has witnessed the sheer horror which many Gen Z and Millennials exhibit when speaking on the phone will attest to this. People who can’t interact in real time lose the chance to hone critical life and business skills such as listening, arguing and negotiating. Few arguments get resolved by text or email.
Many of us will have witnessed children watching cartoons on tablets in restaurants for an entire meal. Sure, they’ve stayed quiet throughout, but the wide array of rich human interactions, with all their chaos, randomness and untidiness, which make a meal worthwhile, are lost.
The inconvenience has to go somewhere
When inconvenience is removed from our lives, it typically moves to machinery, technology and other humans. As life become more convenient for those using apps and digital products, so it becomes less convenient for the humans in the fulfilment supply chain. When we order a takeaway to our door, often the humans who provide that service work antisocial hours, are poorly paid and aren’t paid at all when they’re not booked.
Sometimes too, the inconvenience is just moved on to us in a different way. Self–service checkouts make one element of the experience more convenient (typically a shorter queuing time to get to checkout) but the actual checkout process itself is significantly less convenient (removing the chance to interact with another human, leaving the shopper stuck if the machine can’t understand a barcode, opening the door for the dreaded “unexpected item in the bagging area”).
These new mini tasks (dubbed shadow work by Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich) can clog up our daily lives with chores which used to be carried out by other humans. Examples include comparing flight options, searching for user manuals online and building our own furniture. It can be tempting to ask “how did we ever get anything done before the internet” but perhaps the answer is simply that we were happily avoiding shadow work.
The loss of agency
When we trade effort for effortlessness, we trade agency for helplessness. It’s not just that we understand fewer and fewer things from first principles, it’s also that convenience leaves us passive. Why would you plan anything when all your problems can be solved by lifting your phone?
When we outsource our lives to our phones, we lose the chance to be deliberate, to plan, to dream, to aspire. It strips us of the opportunity to think more carefully about how we’ll spend our precious time, about our place in the world and about the richness of our relationships.
This author has made his living for longer than he cares to imagine optimising digital products for comfort and convenience. And he uses many of the digital products cited above. The challenge for all of us therefore isn’t to become technical luddites, but rather to remain the sovereign actor in our relationship with technology and to ensure we don’t merely serve the god of technology.
Technology is a useful servant but a dangerous master.