Technology doesn't have to be a headache

Insights from psychology enhance usability and well-being

Photo of Steve Whittaker
"Everyone feels guilty and frustrated" about the state of their digital archives, says Steve Whittaker, who wants product developers to pay attention to the way our brains work. "It isn't rocket science. The goal is to make it easier to find what we're looking for." (Photo by Carolyn Lagattuta.)
Humans have a love-hate relationship with technology.

We can't keep our hands off our phones, but we feel overwhelmed by our photo collections. We are embarrassed by our messy digital desktops, and many of us feel inadequate about our inability to keep up with it all.

Steve Whittaker wants to help. He is working on two fronts: improving the way we interface with technology, and harnessing it to improve our well-being.

In other words, more love, less hate.

Whittaker wants to reduce the frustration and self-loathing people feel about their digital messes. "Every person blames themselves about their information and its organization," he said. "Everyone feels guilty and frustrated. I have never met a person who says, 'I have such a great system, let me give you a tour.'"

After two decades of studying the "human-computer interface," Whittaker, a professor of psychology, has compiled his insights into a slim new volume, The Science of Managing our Digital Stuff, coauthored with Ofer Bergman.

Attention, inventors: pay attention to psychology

Any company now building a product involving technology has to pay attention to the psychology of how humans consume and construe technology—at least, they should, said Whittaker. Your messy photo archive? Whittaker chalks that up to a psychological principle called "prospect theory": It turns out we are psychologically inclined to exaggerate the risk of deleting files—and to underestimate the difficulty we will have retrieving material. Hence the digital equivalent of shoeboxes full of snapshots cluttering up our closets: we would rather be certain that we have every blurry, out-of-focus shot, even if we can never find the one we're after.

Digital folders are another challenge. They are notoriously problematic: they hide their contents, users have to remember exactly where they put files to retrieve them, and their organization is inherently subjective. Alternative systems like tagging and keyword search work reasonably well for managing public data ("google" is a verb, after all), but they have not been well-received by people struggling to organize their private digital worlds. Again, Whittaker offers a psychological explanation: the brain process involved in navigating folders is cognitively less demanding than searching, which requires complex verbal processing.

"It isn't rocket science"

The challenge for engineers is to invent systems that "fit how people actually work and think," said Whittaker. He and Bergman call this the "user-subjective approach."

"We all experience organizational problems with our personal stuff," said Whittaker. "If engineers would use these psychological explanations of our preferences as design principles, they could develop a compelling piece of technology. That's why we wrote the book."

Whittaker and Bergman have themselves developed multiple user-subjective designs to help us manage our mess, including one they call "Old'nGray" that automatically finds and highlights the most recent version of a document that is under revision. "It isn't rocket science. The goal is to make it easier to find what we're looking for," said Whittaker.

Silicon Valley has already integrated some of Whittaker's ideas into products, including in the "snooze" feature in Google Inbox and conversational threading in Gmail.

"Santa Cruz is one of the best places to look at the psychology of technology, because we're right next to Silicon Valley," said Whittaker. "If I want to talk to Google or Facebook, I can have a meeting in 40 minutes."

Technology for well-being

The Science of Managing Our Digital Stuff is the culmination of 20 years of research, but Whittaker is already in hot pursuit of his next goal: harnessing the power of technology to help us feel better.

"I look for areas where people need support, and I try to build apps to help," he said. "Technology is embedded in our everyday lives—phones are such a part of our minute-by-minute existence—that I figure why not use the ubiquitousness of technology to do some good?"

One app encourages users to reflect on positive and negative experiences to help them understand what makes them happy. "People find it difficult to get past negative experiences," said Whittaker. "We don't understand what makes us really happy. The app helps you identify what's significant and how it affects you."

Another app supports well-being by having users monitor their habits (sleeping, eating, social interactions, and work) and associated feelings, then schedule more of the activities that make them feel good.

"We can boost your average mood over a month," said Whittaker. "People notice the difference. They feel it. It's a bit like the Fitbit, but it's your emotions. People think they can't control their emotions, but the app shows them the connections. It's about how much you feel in control of those aspects of your life."

Another app designed for college students tracks how much time they are actually studying compared to being on social media. "Human weakness is concentration, especially in the modern age," said Whittaker. "But you see, there's a way technology can help with the problem of technology."

Whittaker doesn't develop apps for the commercial market, but he does share the results of his work with companies, including Google, which has funded some of research. His findings point in a direction he'd like to see take hold in Silicon Valley.

"We humans seem to have almost unlimited capacity for consuming information and for communication. It's astonishing," he said. "The trick is putting it to use to enhance our well-being."