Against Engagement

Kurt Yalcin
4 min readMar 17, 2019

I’ve grown weary of building digital products that capture people’s attention. The word “engagement” gets tossed around lightly. It’s assumed to be a positive goal; an engaging digital product is something teams should strive to build. Coworkers have shared the book Hooked by Nir Eyal with me and we’ve discussed Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness in an effort to tap into behavioral economics and clinch the market, innovate, and develop addictive designs that increase traffic. While these books have been helpful for understanding the power of design to affect our behavior, they’ve left me with a sinking feeling of guilt. We should focus on meaningful products rather than engaging ones.

One of the best books I’ve read that addresses this problem is Jorge Arango’s Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places. In his chapter on engagement, Arango articulates the link between building a product for engagement and seizing a user’s attention. He pieces together how media and publishing bear responsibility for the monetization of attention using the historical example of The Sun that capitalized on a fake story in order to sell more newspapers. Arango writes:

“Sensational content produced sensational results: The Sun soon became very popular, and advertising became established as an effective means for generating revenue by bringing awareness of products and services to potential customers. In a newly industrialized world, which produced a surplus of goods, the ability to harvest attention to create demand became essential.” (Arnago, 55)

He reminds readers that this is not a phenomenon of the past. Our modern information environments present similar pitfalls. Arango warns:

“When we enter an information environment with the expectation that we’re there to participate in a community, and the business model that supports that place seeks to maximize our engagement, our goals and those of the people who manage the environments are working at odds with each other.” (Arnago, 57)

How do designers avoid building products that take advantage of users in a world that pressures them to make everything engaging? As a designer, PM, or engineer, it’s crucial we ensure our products are not only engaging but meaningful, too.