Designing for agency in the realm of the Attention Crisis · Jennifer Piperek

Bachelor Thesis
User interface design patterns, 2019+20, Oct–Mar

A proposal for user interface design patterns to help people regain their attention

I'm happy that I got the opportunity to design a feature based on the "Silent messages" pattern for Nextcloud's Talk app.

This bachelor thesis questions the status quo of the use of everyday technologies and its consequences. It aims to be an inspiration for designers for the development of patterns that help to people regain their attention.

The pattern 'Reduce Noise' helps users to focus on the most important actions.
¹ Bitkom. (n.d.). Wie häufig schauen Sie pro Tag auf Ihr Smartphone? ↗, In Statista - Das Statistik-Portal, August 2017

ContextIn Germany around 40 percent between the age of 18 and 24 look at their smartphone more than 50 times a day. ¹ Technical devices such as the smartphone are ubiquitous and the effects of their use are noticeable.

Going "offline" must not remain the only option.

ChallengeCompanies' intentions are not always the same as those of users. They often struggle to take time off services which are crafted to appeal to them. In order to create a healthy relationship between digital media and consumers, this asymmetry needs to be balanced. The possibility to experience the joy of missing out must be created. Going "offline" must not remain the only option to achieve this.

How can we design software for users that help regain their attention?

OutcomeThe bachelor thesis should not instruct, but rather encourage reflection on one's own actions – both on the consumer's and the creator's side. The result is a proposal for new patterns which intend to be remixed and reused by other designers. Examples visualize the ideas to create an easy access to the topic – for designers as well as non-designers in order to stimulate a discussion.

Source: Flashbak ↗
Photo by Gian Cescon ↗ on Unsplash
We are permanently reachable and can access information from any location. This makes life easier, but not everyone can cope the implications.

Status Quo The smartphone has made technology usage an integral part of our everyday lives. Both knowledge and people are more connected with each other than ever before. This allows every person to become a prosumer but also that there is more information available at every moment than can ever be consumed. Due to the overwhelming amount of information we are forced to focus our attention.

"How to Build Habit-Forming Products" by Nir Eyal
Netflix makes binge-watching tempting for their users
Dynamic feeds are bottomless pits of content

A multi-faceted problem

The methods used in the competition for attention limits a user's agency.

The online environment entices us to consume something new again and again. The next video starts automatically and our feeds know no end. Unlike a novel e.g. where there is an end to a chapter – a "natural" stopping cue – online there is none. ²

On the other hand principles of "persuasive technology" are used in the battle for attention: They manipulate users and bind them to digital products for longer than they actually prefer. These products are part of a system that specifically tries to create addiction. Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, admits ↗: "It's a social-validation feedback loop ... exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you're exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.".

Especially in the e-commerce sector, retailers are trying to use Dark Patterns ↗ to push customers to purchase. Some of the used methods I have summarized as follows:


-----> To create habits of use, e.g. by turning external triggers into internal triggers that are bound to an action.


-----> To signal urgency, e.g. by portraying something as scarce in order to push for action.


-----> To distract from actual tasks, e.g. by sending real-time notifications to interrupt an action.


-----> To be loud, e.g. by presenting information sensationally in order to entice people to take action.


Insight and approachThe methods used to affect attention and the results from user and expert interviews makes it clear that people's power to act is restricted. This insight resulted in the following work hypothesis:

-----> A more harmonious use of digital products and media can be achieved through a design approach that focuses on reclaiming the users' attention.

Design Principles

In my bachelor thesis I understand agency as the ability of the individual to act and decide on one's own authority.

Agency is given if (a) the individual does not feel forced to act but desires to do so and (b) if the action can be carried out without obstacles. This behaviour can be fostered if the individual is given the opportunity for reflection and therefore gets to know their own behaviour better. These findings are transformed into four design principles:

Individual choice

-----> The decision on how to perform an action is up to the user.

Foster reflection

-----> The interaction promotes the reflection process of the user.

Opt-in over opt-out

-----> The functionality that could limit people's agency is not preselected.

Provide options

-----> The functionality that supports the user's intention shall be provided.


A visual impulse[Beschreibung wie Pattern funktionieren]

Pattern 1: Self regulation
Foster reflection & Opt-in over opt-out

Offer users the possibility to limit their usage time or the desired amount of content for a certain period of time in a self-determined way.

Once the limit is reached, the person will be asked to either extend the usage or to leave the feed. All other functions of the app are still available. The proposed solution only affects the feed.

Pattern 2: Reduce noise
Foster reflection & Individual choice

As soon as the video is started all interface elements – except for the video itself – disappear. Global functions (such as the user profile) are still accessible in this new full screen mode. The "hidden" elements can be displayed if desired.

Pattern 3: Silent messages
Provide options & Foster reflection & Individual choice

The sender has the option to send messages "silently", which means that the receiver doesn't receive a notification. It is intended for non-urgent messages.

The receiver opens the app (without knowing about the new message) in order to read the message. After that, the status of the sent message is changed to "received".

Design process

Thinking through makingThe main issue is tackling the huge complexity of the system. It's impossible to understand it in its entirety, so one approach is quickly visualizing ideas to create something that can be reflected upon. This creates a loop of making, reflection, ideation and lead me to define a working hypothesis.

Prototypes as conversation starter

Feedback from users who tested the browser extension confirmed the assumptions.

Browser ExtensionA study by the social scientist Howard Leventhal states that an activity is more likely to be pursued if one makes a "commitment". For example an undertaking in written form. We implemented that idea in the form of a browser extension. In order to get an insight into whether we are right with our assumptions, we distribute the file to people within our close circle of acquaintances and ask them to test the extension for a few days.

Users share their experiences with the extension.
Prototype: A browser extension to set the intention of your current task. Your intention is displayed on every website until you delete it or set a new one.

Mini Design BriefsAt first glance, designing to empower users sounds rather abstract. In order to be able to start creating design solutions I formulated the findings from the previous process into mini design briefs which take place in multiple contexts. The following are results of the design brief in the context of digital communication in chats:

Text input dissapears when reading old messages.
Mark messages and put them in a queue for answering later.
Distraction free mode to better focus on writing.
Options to send a message with delay.
Events for quickly arranging a meeting.

Reflection As a designer, it is important to me to have a stance on the topic "Attention Economy". In my work, I have been dealing with the heteronomy of technology for quite some time and I think it is necessary to have more exchange about it. The process helped me understand how complex the relationships between consumers and providers alone are – not to mention the effects of smartphone use in general. I have tried to show an alternative that encourages users to reflect on their own consumption but also shows that there is a targeted attempt to intervene in their habits.

I'm interested in exchanging ideas with other designers about how they would translate these suggestions into products. At Nextcloud I was already able to incorporate "Silent messages" and the chat app Telegram also published a similar feature ↗.

If this drew your interest I am more than happy to hear from you → Thank you for your time!