Picture yourself in a restaurant.
The server hands you a menu and lets you know they’ll check back in a few minutes to see if you’ve decided on what to eat. You look over the available options and make a choice.
When the server returns to your table, they ask if you think you’re ready to order, but then offer you an additional menu. Specials the chef thought you might enjoy, they say.
Do you stick with what you picked from that first menu, or would you rather take a moment to see if there’s something better available on this new list?
Now imagine that server returning every few minutes with another supplemental menu. Each one unique. Each one with at least a few options you might enjoy.
You start thinking about if you need to come back to this restaurant again soon, because you can only eat one thing tonight, and you’d better make a decision soon, because you’re only getting hungrier.
But there are just so many choices, and the server refuses to stop providing you with more options.
It’s absurd, right? Total Buñuelian nightmare. You’d never go to that restaurant willingly.
But you might be doing just that, except it’s not with what you eat. It’s with the other things you consume.
What is your intention with your attention?
You make choices, moment to moment, about how to spend the finite amount of attention you have. When you choose to act based on your intention, you need to navigate the pathway between that intention and satisfying the desire that lead to that intention.
Let’s say you want to watch a movie, the movie is on Netflix, and you have a Netflix subscription. What greets you when you load Netflix?
First, you get an ad for whatever movie or tv series their algorithm thinks you’re likely to enjoy right at the top, filling most of your screen. Then you get a set of similarly-formatted lists; rows and rows of colorful pictures to entice the eye.
While the top one is most likely the list you populated with choices you intend to watch, you’re also presented with an array of options aside from what you told Netflix you have an interest in.
This is a design choice. Your interaction with Netflix is not crafted with the purpose of helping you follow through on your intention. It’s designed to lead you toward discovery.
You know what’s on the menu. You know what you want. But why don’t you look at our specials, just in case there’s something else you might enjoy?
Compare this to the actions that went with watching a movie on DVD. The advertising, selection, and viewing processes had more distinct separations.
Maybe you went to the store, or to a video rental outlet, and made your choice about what to watch. When it was time to watch the movie, you put the disc in the machine, and only that movie was available to watch.
When the disc would first load, you’d see trailers. Sometimes you could skip them. Sometimes you couldn’t. But one thing you were never able to do was switch what movie was about to play. The advertisement wasn’t linked to the immediate act of consumption.
You were still going to watch the movie you intended, even though you had to see trailers and commercials first (just like at a movie theater, where you lock in your intent with the purchase of a ticket).
Think about the goal of each distribution mechanism. A movie theater wants you to pay for one movie and stay for its duration (and maybe buy some snacks and drinks). A video rental store wants you to pay per movie you watch and bring them back in a timely fashion (which encourages you to watch the movies promptly).
Most streaming services don’t charge you based on how much you watch, and there’s no physical media to return. Their interest is in keeping you paying a regular subscription fee, and the best way to ensure that you want to stay subscribed is to create the feeling that you will continue to find new content worth watching.
A digital service has more interest in helping you discover new menu items, than it does in making sure you clean your plate because you loved what you ordered.
This push toward discovery over intention also holds true with the shift from physical media to streaming media in music.
Open up a music app and check to see if the first screen is your saved library, what you last played, or if you see suggestions of other artists or playlists you might like.
Sidebar: This also relates to the promotion of The Playlist over The Album, because it’s a way of rapidly introducing you to more artists instead of focusing you on any particular musician or group.
Now look at a news site. Individual articles still have a prominent place, but there’s often a sidebar with popular links, or links to additional articles interspersed with the text. You may read your way through a single article, or you might wind up with 18 open tabs and no time to scan them all.
There are tools to combat this, like Reader View in Safari or services like Instapaper and Pocket, that remove extraneous links to aid you in focusing on what you intended to read.
But these are additional tools on top of what was designed and presented to you by the news source. These are workarounds to assert your intention instead of the default.
These design decisions are about fostering hunger instead of enabling satisfaction.
This is not to say “DIGITAL BAD!”
There are some amazing things that have happened due to the proliferation of new distribution methods and channels. In particular with video streaming services, there are new outlets for a more diverse set of storytellers and types of storytelling.
And the ability to access this material easily, quickly, and (relatively) cheaply is a boon for many reasons.
But the design decisions behind how we interact with these services are antagonistic toward user intention. These interfaces can easily turn you into a digital hoarder, always hungry, and rarely satisfied.