Designing for a Future That’s Hard to Imagine

By Ingrid Melvaer Paulin
Senior Behavioral Researcher

December 21, 2018

Editor’s Note:As a dad and as a jokester, one of my favorite dad-joke moves is to end mid-December conversations with the extremely clever sign-off, “Talk to you next year!” Ha! Because …  it’ll be … see? January … and … Oh, you get it. Classic, right?

Yeah, so I’ve lost a lot of friends this way over the years, but it does make me wonder, “What will happen next year? What does the vast future hold in store?” No one can know the answer to those questions with any certainty, but those who design products and services have a responsibility to at least ask.  But don’t ask me, go ask your mother! Ha! Get it? Because … I’m … you know … and she … and … yeah.   Talk to you next year. 

The tech industry has neglected the future.

The New York Times recently exposed how Facebook executives ignored – and sought to conceal – warning signs that their platform was being used as an instrument for propaganda. When Mark Zuckerberg started Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, he probably couldn’t have imagined it would face these types of issues 14 years later. This is reflected in what The New Yorker referred to as Zuckerberg’s “dorm-room defense” before Congress: His repeated mention of the early days of Facebook, as though the company’s modest origins could justify anything that might have gone catastrophically wrong since then.

The technology industry is not the only industry struggling to imagine the downstream consequences of their decisions. In a recent presentation at the Ideas42 Behavioral Summit, Eric Johnson, a behavioral scientist at Columbia Business School, spoke about the concept of “Future Neglect.” Using the example of the built environment, he argued that people tend to neglect the fact that we are building infrastructure that may be around longer than us. The average building in New York’s Midtown South, for example, is 95 years old; built at a time when the city looked very different than it does today.

Given that the infrastructure we build today will need to adapt to a future that’s sometimes hard to imagine, how can designers avoid or mitigate negative long-term consequences?

Overvaluing the present

The tendency to overvalue the present is a common behavioral bias. A number of studies in behavioral science show that we are motivated by immediate, short-term gains, often at the expense of larger gains in the future. This can lead us to things like undersave, rack up credit card debt, or do unhealthy things that feel good now but will harm us in the long term.

The future can be hard to imagine and connect with. When asked to imagine themselves in the future, participants in brain-imaging studies show that doing so activates the same part of the brain we use to think about others, a different part of the brain than we use to think about ourselves. In other words, we tend to think about our future self as a different person . This makes making good long-term choices difficult, and our health, finances, and infrastructure suffer for it.

We tend to think about our future self as a different person. This makes making good long-term choices difficult.

Faced with a choice between making ourselves, our clients or our investors happy in the short-term or pursuing a less concrete but larger and more sustainable outcome in the future, our minds push us to maximize our short-term gain.

Companies are rewarded based on short-term metrics

The way modern companies are incentivized does not make it easy for designers to focus on long-term benefits. As our digital products are becoming increasingly saturated with notifications, for example, the fight for users’ attention intensifies. For technology companies, engagement metrics such as time spent in-product, clicks, likes and shares have become one of the most important measures of success. The more time a user spends engaging with the product, the higher the company is valued. This has serious consequences. As a revenue model, it creates an incentive for companies to make their products as addictive as possible. It’s working: One survey estimates that U.S. mobile users spend an average of 4 hours per day engaging with apps and websites.

We are starting to understand the long-term consequences of an overemphasis on increasing engagement.

In the short-term, the focus on designing to increase engagement may not have been seen as a bad thing. After all, many tech companies are famously idealistic. Facebook, for example, has a mission of building community and bringing the world closer together. From that perspective, more engagement translates into more time spent getting closer to your friends.

This image, however, is starting to crack, and we are starting to understand the long-term consequences of an overemphasis on increasing engagement. Users are increasingly looking for help cutting back on the time they spend on their devices. In fact, many are starting to demand that products do more than monopolize their time. Recognizing this new need, the market has introduced new products like Apple’s Screen Time, notification batching , and even digital detox sunglasses.

Getting organizations to think about the future

Clearly, organizations need to think about the future. While we think about our future selves as different people, many studies have also highlighted a potential remedy: When people are made to not only think about what their future looks like, but connect with and care about their future selves, they make better long-term decisions in the present.

So how can we transfer this insight from the realm of the personal to the organization, helping organizations design for outcomes that are better for their “future self?” To start, organizations need to make changes to how they measure success as well as changing their design process.

When it comes to measuring success, companies may face pressure from their investors to continue focusing on short-term metrics such as engagement. A structural shift towards creating metrics that focus on long-term outcomes is likely to benefit companies, users and, eventually, investors.  After all, if users feel like they are getting sucked in without getting any value, they will eventually pull away. Instead, companies should align their metrics for success with the user’s own goals, asking questions such as: Are you happier after consuming content from this platform? Did it help you do something you wanted to do? Are you feeling like it was time well spent?

The second, and (probably) easier change companies should make is to regularly carve out time during the design process to imagine what the future would, and could, look like. The process of performing product “pre-mortems” is one way to do this.  (A pre-mortem is a strategy that starts by by imagining that a project has failed, then works backwards to identify and determine the things that led to the failure.) Using this prospective hindsight-approach allows teams to consider what might go wrong and create “if-then” plans to stay on course for achieving long-term goals. When companies acknowledge that there are uncertainties, they are more successful at planning for contingencies.

Companies should make sure to regularly carve out time during the design process to imagine what the future would, and could, look like

Early upstream decisions about design are more influential, and cost less to make, than later fixes to design failure or oversight. Struggling to connect with how we’ll feel in the future is a human trait, and it is one that can have serious consequences for the infrastructure organizations and designers create. Organizations designing the spaces and products that influence people’s lives, such as Facebook, has a responsibility to mitigate the negative societal effects of their own biases. When organizations design for long-term outcomes that are aligned with the user’s intention and that consider potential future uses and misuses of their products, everyone will be better off.

By Ingrid Melvaer Paulin
Senior Behavioral Researcher


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