For all that technology has done to bring people together, there’s a growing sense that it’s also driving us apart. For every online fundraiser that lets us help our fellow humans in need, there’s an instance of cyberbullying, an argument blown out of proportion or a rumor spread faster than the speed of light. On top of all this, there’s mounting evidence that the more time we spend looking at our phones, the more isolated, depressed and anxious we become.
In his book, “Humans are Underrated,” author Geoff Colvin describes how true, human empathy (the kind that makes us smarter and more productive), can only be properly experienced when we’re together face-to-face. For all the online interactions we have on social media, we’re losing mastery of basic social skills that help us build trust with one another, like the ability to read nonverbal social cues and body language.
All this creates something of a conundrum: We need technology to work smarter and more efficiently, to connect over long distances and simplify the rote tasks that keep us from doing the things we love. But that same technology is also tearing us apart.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. What if we could build technology that truly brought us together, not just in digital spaces, but face-to-face in the physical world? What if technology could actually foster empathy rather than hinder it? By asking the right questions, we can build technology that makes us more human, not less.
Good technology fosters empathy and authentic connection through design.
When we think about the sort of technology we want to build moving forward, it’s helpful to look to companies that are already doing it well. We don’t have to look far to find great technologies that help us engage with the world on a deeper level.
For instance, Headspace, a meditation and mindfulness app, helps people declutter their minds by providing, short, guided audio meditation sessions. Where other mobile apps are designed for users to spend as much time using them as possible, Headspace offers one lesson a day to help people feel nourished and fulfilled in their bodies, their minds and the physical world.
One of technology’s greatest powers is the ability to foster and drive empathy. For all their flaws, social media networks often allow us to feel known where we might otherwise feel out of place, and just as importantly, can help us step into the stories and lives of people who exist outside of our own echo chambers. It’s sparked powerful waves of empathy like the #metoo movement, and when we look at companies like GoFundMe, we see how technologists are using the internet to not just create empathy between human beings, but to inspire action. In order for us to build a more connected world, we need more tools that let us share our stories with one another — without the distrust and vitriol that is often found on social media.
Finally, human-focused technology requires thoughtful, intentional design. Rather than being built to satisfy many different needs, products designed to achieve one or two crucial goals can provide a more meaningful experience. Take Bumble, the dating app designed to deliver a safe, positive experience for women. By honing in on this goal, the app designed a system where men cannot contact women unless the woman reaches out first. As a result, Bumble has managed to craft a comfortable dating experience that creates lasting human connections.
Building human technology means asking the right questions.
By studying examples of technology that makes us more human, we can start asking the questions that lead us to develop better tools moving forward.
When considering a new product or feature, one question we always try to ask is, “How much is enough?” Too often, technology tools are designed to net the biggest profit or to capture as much of the user’s time as possible. We’ve seen this lead to developers designing products that encourage users to become addicted to them. To combat this, we consider what we actually want for the people who will use what we’re building, and then work backward from there. As a rule, it’s more important to think about the purpose of using our tools than the frequency with which people will use them.
Another good question to ask is, “How does our product reflect our values?” For every piece of good technology, consumers should be able to tell what was important to the people or companies that created it. As an example, Lyft’s focus on simplicity and safety is readily apparent in its app and services, and it’s easy for people to tell how much the company values bringing people together and getting us safely to where we need to be.
Lastly, we can ask how our technology might make its most active users feel differently about themselves and the world around them. One of the biggest mistakes technologists make is focusing on what they can do to get people to become loyal users of their products, instead of concerning themselves with what will happen to their real human customers once they do. If our user is checking in 5, 10, or 15 times a day, what effect is that having on them? How does each interaction impact the way they see themselves, their friends, and the world?
The way forward.
At its best, technology removes obstacles to authentic human connection and allows us to be better versions of ourselves. It’s the spreadsheet tool that allows you to finish your work and spend time with your family after you’ve left the office early. Or the message board that helped you make friends from different time zones when you were a teenager. Or maybe it’s the video chat tool you use to see and hear your loved ones when you’re halfway across the world.
We can build more technology tools like this, and we can build them better than we ever have before. All we have to do is think deeply about what connects us as humans and make these qualities the heart of our work.