Designing for health: Balancing user distraction and engagement.
Written: 12-27-2016

What are the guiding principles that product managers, designers and developers need to consider when it comes to user engagement and attention distraction?  I find this to be an especially critical question for those of us who are focused on making a user’s life happier and healthier. The dilemma is trying to balance the two different outcomes we hope our products achieve:

1. A user engages with the product consistently.

2. The product helps the user optimize their lives by empowering them to make choices that support their health behaviors and decision making.

These two outcomes can be challenging to achieve in perfect harmony, as highlighted in a recent discussion between Jason Calacanis and Adam Gazzaley on the podcast This Week in Startups. In the discussion, Gazzaley,  author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World”,  shares his research on distraction and its impact on human behavior. The most interesting conversation was when they were talking about social media usage, the distractions that it causes and the impact it can have on mental health. My understanding was that too much distraction, without awareness and guidelines, can lead to increases in anxiety, depression and other mood imbalances.

Understanding how to engage and gain the attention of a user is one place a user’s health needs to be considered when we are developing our products. If we know that constant distractions are potentially detrimental to a user’s health, are we prepared to make design decisions that engage our users in a healthy way? Even when we understand that we should filter creative decisions through this lens, do we design the applications so each user has the freedom to set up the level of engagement they want, or do we remove distractions from the user experience completely? These decisions clearly require careful thought within the context of each development process, however having an ethos that underpins your development philosophy is essential.

The reason that this ethos is critical, is due to the fact that at some point you will be faced with the observation that users are not engaging with your product as much as you (or your investors) would like. In these situations, how will you respond? If it is in your development ethos to prioritize user health over user engagement, it will help you continue developing a supportive and effective application.

The discussion of notifications and distractions is not one sided.  Having some distraction does not necessarily mean the product is only negatively impacting the user’s health. The optimistic side of this product design decision making, is that when an application can engage a user at the right moment in time, it can support a user’s goal to live healthier. The insertion of an appropriate ‘trigger’ is part of the theoretical foundation of B.J. Fogg’s behavior change model. When our products can provide a trigger to the user at the right moment, paired with a behavior that is within their ability and given adequate motivation, then our products can become a positive tool for change.

In the interview, Gazzaley said multiple times that one of the best behaviors an individual can have to combat negative impacts of distraction is to engage in physical activity and exercise. One positive strategy I have seen in multiple technologies and applications is to provide a nudge towards movement precisely at the moment a user will find themselves getting ready to read their Facebook, Twitter or email inbox.

I conclude with a question targeted at myself and others creating products that desire to improve a user’s health and happiness:  How are we defining the amount of distraction and engagement required by a user, as we design our products?