Editor’s Note: The IA Summit is three weeks away. Register today using our special discount code uxbooth. Last week we highlighted co-chair Nathaniel Davis’ take on the 2018 IA Summit theme, convergence. Today we have a different view from co-chair Coco Chalfant.

As we considered the theme for IAS18, I kept coming back to the thought of how our lives and social interactions have changed over the last two decades. It’s possible that the convergence of technology, human activity, and societal norms is affecting our physical and social behaviors. And as information architects, we have the responsibility and skills to affect positive change in society with our designs.

Changes in Social Behaviors

The advent of social media and how humans access, process, and transmit ideas with each other has changed dramatically in the last 20 years. Sharing information with a best friend, in the 1990’s, meant using a traditional landline telephone to place a call and hoping that they were available to accept your call. If you were fortunate, you were an early adopter of the car phone or cell phone. The cell phone increased your ability to reach out and connect to anyone from wherever you had a connection–no cables necessary! My favorite was the pager, it is arguably the precursor to texting. Someone could send you a numerical message that you had to decipher. You would then call that person back to get the full message. Let that sit for a minute.

It has only taken 20 years for this dramatic evolution in augmented human communication to play out. Today, it’s much easier to connect with anyone. We can text while we are flying in a plane at thirty-thousand feet above the surface of the earth. And while it appears that the sky is literally no longer the limit for technology, is human communication and its social norms on a similar path? Does all this behavioral evolution have any social drawbacks? And how can information architects protect our most vital social skills during this amazing technological growth spurt. My intuition leads me to think that our technical advances are unintentionally devolving the foundations of human communication.

While sociologists can help to determine the impact of these behavioral shifts, it is in the interest of information architects to consider the ethical, moral, and societal implications of an intended design. When we challenge ourselves to answer how our digital interfaces fit into a larger ecosystem of human discourse, we can improve our chances for a more sustainable and meaningful use of technology.

Information Architecture & Social Design

Social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat have changed how we communicate, interact, and spend time with each other. Use of these services has social implications that include how we engage in small and large groups. They also influence our ability to create entirely new behaviors like judging the value of a comment by the number of times it’s liked or forwarded. Designs that delight, improve engagement, and increase rewards for using a system alters how we interact with each other on the most personal levels.

This is where we need to think, as designers, about the convergence point between the designs and the systems within which we create. Is the desired effect of delight a positive impact for the human psyche and/or society in general? Is more interaction with a machine, whether it be Alexa, Siri, or the robot that cleans your house, better for the people at the receiving end of our designs? Are we improving lives? At what point should we consider designing for improved human-to-human interaction? We must not lose sight of how our work impacts humanity as a whole.

Additionally, as we design for delight we must be careful to avoid the proliferation of addictive behaviors where humans feel more attached to technological devices than to other human beings. Researchers have already reported on the correlation of negative social behaviors that are caused by a preference to augment human-to-human communication with technology. For example, a recent study shows that more people claim to be lonelier than ever despite the degree of connectedness made possible by social media. The study concludes that “young adults with high [social media use (SMU)] seem to feel more socially isolated than their counterparts with lower SMU. Future research should focus on determining directionality and elucidating reasons for these associations.” It is becoming clear that, as architects and designers, greater effort is needed to responsibly consider the convergence of technology and our humanity.

The Future

So how do we find the converging “sweet spot” of society and technology and what can information architects do to help? This is the question that kept repeating in my mind every time we considered “Convergence” as the theme for the 2018 IA Summit. We are responsible to society as much as we are to our clients and employers. We need to strive to embrace broader scenarios and evaluate how our designs shape our physical, social, and emotional landscapes. As we improve how people interact with technology, let us not forget to nudge society forward in a positive way as well.

Join us as we continue this and other pressing questions at the 2018 IA Summit. See you in Chicago.

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