Tech companies have long promised that devices and apps will improve our relationships. Sometimes they deliver on that promise (usually with good guard rails and design), but most of the time it’s something less.
We’ve all heard complaints about devices hindering relationships. Devices are out during dinner and no one is talking. After dinner, families retreat to their various screens. Technology can bring us together when we’re apart, but when we’re together technology often pushes us away from each other.
If we want a better digital quality of life, our technology should work to enhance relationships and engagement, not replace or supplant those relationships.
You Can’t Always Blame Tech
OK, right off the bat let’s deal with the excuses. Technology has allowed us to let devices interfere with our relationships, but you can’t always blame the device. Technology is just a tool, and how we use it is on us.
You could just as easily use technology to encourage relationships, by shutting off WiFi access during dinner, playing video games together as a family, or connecting with distant friends or family over Zoom.
Make Tech Prioritize Relationships
The key is that software and device makers need to prioritize human engagement and relationships. We need to actually build things to encourage interaction instead of discourage it.
Parental & User Controls
That feature to turn off WiFi during meals is a good example of making software that enhances relationships and puts people in control. It recognizes the potential pros and cons of tech, and gives people a way to control it and maximize the positives.
Controls that allow parents to monitor use, limit access, and restrict content are a crucial tool that can keep parents from feeling overwhelmed. They want their children to have the latest toys, but then there’s legitimate concern about what their children can access (and who can access their children). Tech companies have made strides in this area, but there’s always room for improvement.
Being able to monitor and limit use has applications beyond parenting, including simply making users aware of how much they’re on devices and allowing them to set their own boundaries. Giving users control of who they interact with and what they can see is crucial. Not everybody wants to share their thoughts with the world.
Engage the Mavens, the Craftsman, and the People Who’ve Been There
Another example could be as simple as how a company approaches a knowledge base for a product. One approach is to have a searchable knowledge base with all the answers. You’ve got all the technical articles for how something works, and if it’s not there it probably doesn’t exist.
But another approach could add a human element to that knowledge base and allow users to ask an expert if they can’t find their answer. Suddenly you’re leveraging a real person’s expertise and providing better customer service. As a bonus, more knowledge can be extracted from that interaction and used to expand the knowledge base, helping the next person who comes along. Everybody wins.
Technology has been moving away from ownership and toward a rental approach, especially when it comes to entertainment. A simple way for tech companies to focus on relationships and engagement is to build their entertainment offerings with that in mind.
Every entertainment plan should have a family or sharing component to it. Entertainment can be consumed individually or in groups, but too often our technology makes that group sharing difficult. You can make a music playlist for yourself, but it’s not always easy to share that playlist with family members—especially if they don’t pay for the same access you do. Families will likely balk at paying for individual memberships for each family member (nevermind the hassle of creating multiple logins and multiple payments). Make it simple with a family membership or multiple device options that allow people to share within reason.
Some examples where companies are making strides in this area include group watching—Sling and Teleparty—Kindle book lending, which allows you to share your reads with friends or family (albeit with a lot of limitations).
So Many Friends
With all your friends on Facebook, it’s tempting to think technology is doing a good job encouraging relationships. But let’s be realistic about how many relationships the average person can support. You may have hundreds of friends on Facebook, but you’re not actually interacting with them.
The average person can only manage a few dozen relationships.
The result of all these online connections is like “butter scraped over too much bread.” It’s not sustainable and it’s not helpful.
The one caveat is that social media can be helpful in maintaining distant connections. You probably don’t keep up with your high school friends or co-workers from a decade ago on a regular basis, but sometimes it’s still helpful to be connected to them. Sometimes it’s a networking opportunity or sharing old memories. Social media sites should help you recognize the difference between active and passive connections and help you sort them to improve your experience.
Tech Bias Is Showing
Another challenge is that tech companies aren’t interested in developing relationships, they want to make a buck. So while the algorithm purports to show you interesting content, it’s often more focused on what will keep you glued and engaged to the screen. That’s often social media debates instead of deeper connections with your friends.
The algorithm is biased.
We should have the control to tell social media to leave us alone. We should be able to opt out when necessary. But instead we often get the unending flood of content in our feed.
Imagine if a matchmaking site brought you dates every single day, potential suitors showing up at your doorstep while you’re still in your bathrobe? Yikes. That’s kind of how Facebook’s algorithm works, constantly flooding you with content.
Intentional Focus on Community Building and In-Person Engagement
This approach requires some intention. It’s likely not a cheaper way to build software or devices, but it can be better. But it requires developers and tech creators to think deeply about how their products can enhance relationships. With this kind of intentional approach we can improve our digital quality of life.