Designing for (Dis)engagement


As designers, we always hear how important it is that our deliverables ensure user engagement and interaction, elicit responses and delight. This focus on engagement is pervasive, from how successful UX is measured to auto-play, and gamification – design elements meant to get users involved with their devices. But what is the psychological impact of ubiquitous tech and how are users pushing back? How can UX designers begin reintroducing the humane in human-centered design?

The Problem

Discussion of the negative mental impact of technology is nothing new and has developed significantly over the last few years. From anxiety and depression caused by social media to gaming addiction, the psychological cost of technology can no longer be ignored.

Various theories from cognitive psychology have been adapted for use in UX, which has increased the importance and scale of user engagement. Applying these learnings to design has often resulted in genuinely addictive and omnipresent experiences. I will discuss two theories I believe are especially relevant given their contemporary and pervasive use:

  1. Nudge Theory
    Thaler and Cass introduced this concept in their 2008 book of the same name. It works subtly, by unconsciously guiding decision-making towards choices that are broadly in our self-interest. An example would be organ donation where users are opted-in by default. Conscious effort is required to opt-out, so we are nudged in the right direction, remaining a donor. Nudging is used extensively in the digital realm to lead users to take specific actions, often unconsciously. We may receive time or location-specific push notifications if our fitness tracker wants us to take a few more steps during our lunch break. Or, if we want users to donate $20 to an online campaign, we may make that the default input in the value field, requiring effort to change this number.
  2. The Principle of Variable Rewards
    Pioneered by B.F. Skinner, the principle is that if you want to ensure an action keeps happening, make the reward for that action vary. For example, if we’re going to keep going to the gym, we should establish a surprising reward pattern – we might get a chocolate bar for our first three visits, nothing the fourth visit, and a new pair of trainers on the fifth. Skinner found that variable rewards ensured the most instances of an action reoccurring, and it also led to behavior that was “hard to extinguish.” In other words, even after rewards stop, we may still head to the gym. In UX, an example of this is the “pull to refresh” feature on Twitter or Instagram. Like a slot machine, when we pull, we never know what the reward will be: perhaps a video from our favorite artist, a news-worthy tweet, or new likes on that picture we just posted.

Together, the application of these theories in UX is just a small example of how technology has been holding our psyche hostage over engagement. It’s no surprise that the growing backlash is calling for silence.

The Backlash

As tech companies are beginning to face up to the ‘always-on’ reality they have created, they are also responding to users demanding more control over how technology drives our lives. In 2018, both Apple and Google came out with apps designed to limit our screen time and provide data on how long we spend looking at our phones. Digital detoxes are on the rise, as are organizations aimed at countering unhealthy design practices, such as Mindful Technology and the Center for Humane Technology.

Perhaps the most significant illustration of a need for silence is the resurgence of physical products that give users more control over their usage. The Light Phone, introduced a few years ago on Kickstarter, only has one function, making calls; while Sony announced at the end of 2018 that it was bringing back it’s PlayStation Classic console (Fjord Trends 2019 Report). It’s becoming increasingly clear that:

“The values users seek from the products, services and organizations we choose to interact with are shifting. Where once we celebrated novelty, excitement and instant gratification, we now reject organizations that shout to get our attention.”

(Fjord Trends 2019 Report, p. 11).

The Way Forward

Adapting to changing user behaviors will need to occur in two major areas:

  1. In how businesses measure and value the success of their UX practices, and;
  2. In how we design for the least amount of disruption possible.

If companies remain committed to KPIs that prioritize engagement, then accurate measures of success with users may be overlooked entirely – perhaps the best engagement outcome is none at all. Companies will need to develop or prioritize other metrics that point to real user satisfaction. For example, the frequency of interactions may now be less important than how long a user has an app without deleting it.

As UX designers we will need to re-think products and interfaces to be as minimally invasive as possible. This is especially important as voice UX begins to grow, as it is easier to avoid looking at screens than it is to tune out unwanted sounds. Humane, thoughtful and ethical considerations should be prioritized in favor of designs that focus on engagement, producing stressful and often shallow relationships with technology. This means avoiding the use of what Mindful Technology has coined ‘anti-patterns’ and ‘coded language’ that perpetuate harmful design practices, such as:


As the negative side-effects of technology threaten to overwhelm us, actively choosing to disengage with our digital products may be one of the few ways we feel like we still have control. Companies that do not support users in this goal risk losing their trust. Designers have a responsibility to create interfaces that make it as easy as possible for users to chose the intensity of engagement they would like to have, while businesses need to recognize and champion measures that lead to less-invasive products. Those who can successfully support their users in having an effective but limited digital experience will stand out.

“Rather than being big, bold and noisy, to avoid being ignored – or worse, abandoned – organizations need to pipe down.”

(Fjord Trends 2019 Report, p. 12).


Design Critique: Citymapper (iPhone app)


The digital interface I chose to critique is the Citymapper app for iPhone. It is a transportation app that finds the best possible routes between locations. It also provides transport maps and updates for your city. Given the scope of the app’s functionality, I will limit my critique to the home screen, based on a few of the principles found in Don Norman’s “Design of Everyday Things”.


One of the first principles Norman introduces is Discoverability: when a user can “determine what actions are possible and the current state of the device.” Already, some of the first visual elements we see on the homepage satisfy this principle:

We can see from the picture above that the screen contains several buttons, each one indicating different possible actions with the interface. The discoverability of these interactions is supported by having buttons that look like buttons, that also contain visual clues to their purpose. In the example below the button includes visual clues that (correctly) imply you will find bus-related transport information there:

These clues are examples of Signifiers because they “ensure discoverability.” In other words, they indicate how or where the user needs to interact with the product to ensure a specific action happens (in this case, signifying where to touch the screen to find bus information). While signifiers are a large part of the success of the interface, they also rely heavily on knowledge in the head. For example, a user is expected to be familiar with the “PATH” train logo and where it goes if they are to understand the action associated with the button below because neither the name nor logo provide any indication that it relates to New Jersey. This may be especially frustrating for tourists or new residents:

A way around this would be to transfer some of the expected knowledge in the head into knowledge in the world (present in the app), such as including “New Jersey” or “NJ” in the button, like in the mock-up below:

One of my favorite DOET principles is Feedback – when there is “full and continuous information about the results of actions […]. After an action has been executed, it is easy to determine the new state.” All the buttons on the home screen provide excellent feedback by taking the user to a visually different place once the action is complete. For example, by selecting “Lines”, I am taken to a new page, in a new color, entitled “Lines,” where it is clear that this new state is a direct result of having clicked on that first button:

By ensuring users are taken to visually different places after taking action, the app indicates progression to a new state. This use of feedback fills the gap between the Gulf of Execution and the Gulf of Evaluation, by providing users with a result they can perceive, interpret and then compare to their original goal.

Another concept Norman discusses are the three levels of perception used to process human cognition and emotion. The Citymapper app is an excellent example of successful visceral level processing: it uses engaging aesthetics to drive a positive emotional response, by immediately making the app look and feel friendly and helpful. This response is largely driven by a combination of illustrations and colors that allude to the city you are in and to positively reinforce things the app has helped you do (in this case, save calories, trees, and money):

However, a positive emotional response to the app’s aesthetic appeal is only one of the visceral reactions I have had. Another, more negative response, is that I usually feel the app’s home screen is too cluttered when I open it. In an attempt to de-clutter my interface, I tried to delete the “Get Me To Work” button which I never use. Unfortunately, Constraints come into play here, as the only possible action for a first-time interaction with the button is actually to set a location:

Not only am I not able to immediately delete the button, but I am also not able to delete it even after I have set a location, which I was able to test with the “Get Me Home” button, which I often use (none of the menu options allow for deletion):

The solution here might be to remove first-time interaction constraints and allow access to the full options menu on a user’s first try. Additionally, the options menu should be modified to include a “Delete” button. This would allow users to tailor the interface to match their preferences and usage, as well as contribute to a less cluttered interface and consequently, a more positive visceral response.


I have been using Citymapper for several years despite serious competition from similar apps, which is evidence of how user-friendly and effective I find it as a travel tool. This is also a good example of positive reflective level processing, as my memories of using the app are good and inform my decision to continue using it on a daily basis.

Bonus points ⭐

While writing this critique a notification for a new wheelchair accessibility feature popped up – it’s so encouraging to see inclusivity increasingly becoming part of mainstream design and it made me like the app even more:


Norman, D. (2013). The design of everyday things. New York: Basic Books.