5 min readApr 12, 2021


Humane design. What is it?

You’re busy, on a video call, and your phone vibrates.

How does it feel, being unable to check it?

We live in a world where technology is constantly vying for our attention.

And, frequently, we oblige.

Think of the time you spend scrolling on facebook, snapchat, tik tok or instagram, only to realise a curiously long time has passed since you started.

While it’s certainly possible to have a healthy relationship with social media and technology in general, these platforms make money from selling our data, which is something we all know but prefer to ignore.

When we’re ‘on platform’ we’re generating revenue, and said companies use a variety of techniques to make us spend as much time as they can there.

One of the key techniques is the dopamine feedback loop.

Humans are by nature social animals; cooperation is an important factor in our survival. And survival is one of the core drivers that motivates our behaviour, both conscious and unconscious.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a central role in motivating our behaviour. It is released when we eat food, have sex, after exercise and — crucially — when we have successful social interactions.

Our brains have four major dopamine pathways, each associated with their own cognitive and motor processes. Three of these are considered to be “reward pathways”, and, in the case of addicts, have been shown to be dysfunctional.

While physically separate in our brains, all three become active when we’re experiencing and even anticipating rewarding events. They reinforce the association between a stimulus and the dopamine hit that follows, which causes us to repeat the behaviour to get the next hit.

Neurons that fire together, wire together.

The more we behave in a way that we associate with pleasure, the more we begin to associate the behaviour with some kind of pleasure and seek out that pleasure.

However, we can’t get a full SM dopamine hit whenever we want one. If we did, we would be in control. We could open up our app of choice at any time, get a reaffirming hit, and move on with our day.

But that’s not what looks good at the bottom of a balance sheet.

Likewise, we can’t always not get a hit when we crave one, otherwise we’d lose interest.

This principle is how we become conditioned to stay engaged.

Think of Pavlov’s dog. He hears the bell, then gets food. He quickly starts to associate the bell with food. What gets him excited now is the anticipation of food associated with the bell.

Cue. Reward. Repeat.

If he didn’t get food after hearing the bell, dopamine activity would drop, sending a negative feedback signal to the relevant parts of the brain, weakening the positive association.

Enter variable reward schedules.

BF Skinner — an American psychologist responsible for, among others, creating conditioning regimens that caused soldiers to shoot to kill much more frequently than before — found that mice performed reward-associated behaviours most often when they were unable to predict when they would be rewarded.

Humans, in this regard, are the same.

When we perceive a reward as given at random, and the cost of checking (whipping out your phone) is low, we become conditioned to check habitually.

The nefarious psychologists in the employ of the aforementioned social media platforms work very hard to keep you doing exactly that.

This is the psychological mechanism behind slot machines’ uncanny ability to inthrall players. You can’t always win, but you can’t always lose, either.

For context, as explained in this interview, instagram has implemented a variable reward ratio schedule.

This will sometimes withhold “likes”. So you post, and are disappointed with the response, only to be rewarded later with a large burst of likes.

Your dopamine centres have been primed by those initial negative outcomes to respond readily and generously to the sudden influx of social appraisal, flooding your bloodstream with dopamine.

Smartphones and social media apps have become ubiquitous, so it’s on the user to decide for him or herself what their relationship is with these.

But is it only up to the user?

Humane design is a perspective focused on user wellbeing, prioritising their time and attention, which can be summarised by a few principles.

These are:


Designs focus on providing value over generating revenue.


Maximising the overall quality of time spent by users through bounding the experiences and prioritising meaningful and relevant content.


Enabling users and drawing on the full range of human diversity.


Focusing on the wellbeing of the most vulnerable, anticipating potential for how abuses of a given design could occur while protecting the free expression.of ideas.


Clear about intentions, honest in actions.

Instead of a race to the bottom of the brainstem — SM companies trying to tap into more and more base emotions to keep us hooked in continually more powerful ways — humane design is an approach where designers are focused on providing users with real value, respectful of users’ time and where a given app’s creators are upfront about their intentions.

There are huge benefits of using such an approach. When creators focus on providing real, tangible value to users, the creations themselves become valuable to their users. Transparency is another obvious one, building trust.

How upfront are facebook and instagram about what they do with your data, how they make money from your attention, and the means they use to keep it?

In an age where attention, termed ‘engagement’, literally means revenue, why should we use humane design?

Technology undoubtedly has huge upsides in terms of potential positive societal impact.

However, we might want to rethink how we approach it.

Is it a tool, or is it our master?

What kind of a relationship should our children have with it?

Is it up to us, users, to pressure these companies to stop doing what they do so well, the very thing that makes them money?

Is it likely that they’ll do more than pay vigorous lip service to the ideas of user-centricity and ethical design?

We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’m going outside.

By: Nick Lucek

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