Digital abuse is hard to leave — by design

1. Society normalises unhealthy behaviour so people may not understand that their relationship is abusive.

  • the commercial norm is to collect data about users and exploit this for profit.
  • companies hide (by intent or by normalization) important information in extensive terms and privacy policies that are hard to read, hard to remember, and most often: not read at all.
  • a majority of actors are trying to tie consumers up in long-term subscriptions.
  • designers learn about habit-forming techniques to influence people one way or the other.
  • it’s expected to be harder to leave a service than to join it.

2. Victims feel personally responsible for the abusive behavior.

  • “I bought the wrong thing, but that’s likely just me.”
  • “I signed up for that trial period but it’s my own fault I’m now stuck in a 12-month contract.”
  • “I can’t seem to stop checking notifications but that’s only my own lack of self-control.”
  • “They used my Instagram photo about being raped in widespread advertisement but it’s my fault for not reading the terms of service.”
  • “Wow I’m so bad at computers I’m sure everyone must be laughing at me behind my back.”

3. If you stick it out, things might change.

4. You share a life together.

5. Leaving is made difficult

Your role-related responsibility as a designer

  • Understand our own value systems and the outcomes we want to avoid. The problem areas of technology are broad and far-reaching. By being aware of them and regularly discussing them we are in a better position to avoid repeating the mistakes of others.
  • In early stages consider not only the use and users of a tool, but the non-users and the co-dependent users. When it makes sense I favor the word participants over users, such as in The Inclusive Panda model. You can also be helped by second and third order thinking, as well as speculative design and imagining different futures.
  • Complement performance indicators with indicators of wellbeing: such as autonomy and the ability to influence, control and grow. Allowing people these abilities can become part of a regular assessment, and is something a person in your team can be appointed to manage.
  • Provide feedback mechanisms that allow the discovery of harmful outcomes that a homogenous team can not discover on its own. Preferably by also proactively engaging with diverse groups of people to listen to as many perspectives as possible.

Your personal choice

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