Why the Publishing World Needs Humane Design

How many times do you check your phone a day? Fifty? A hundred? A thousand? You’re still probably underestimating.

If we’re anything alike, you check your phone even when you know there’s nothing new to see. You unlock it just to swipe through pages of apps or scroll through texts without tapping into any conversations. You pick up your phone to check the time, forget immediately, and check it again.

If this embarrasses you, don’t blame yourself. Blame designers for not employing humane design.


Think of humane design, a term taken from video game designer James Portnow, as ergonomics for the brain. It’s a set of design principles used to create the most comfortable content experience for audiences. Obvious things, like having a standard black font on a white background, or not having flashing images on a website, could all be considered part of humane design. But many publishers and content platforms actively design against other subtle humane principles in order to attract and keep our attention.

Tristan Harris, formerly a design ethicist for Google, wrote about many of these anti-humane design elements and how they keep people clicking. At this point, many of these are so ubiquitous that they’ve become innocuous: push notifications, pop-ups, infinite scroll, auto-play, and so on.

“People might bemoan clickbait, but that doesn’t stop them from reading it.”

Danny Funt, a writer at the Columbia Journalism Review who recently published an article on the topic of humane design, doesn’t expect these addictive design choices to change any time soon.

“People are aware that they’re hooked on their devices and social networks,” Funt told me. “But the biggest digital success stories, like BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post, are still devoted to the most harmful model to the consumer. People might bemoan clickbait, but that doesn’t stop them from reading it.”

Funt believes that the current system leaves publishers trapped in an undesirable place. Since the system incentivizes chasing as many pageviews as possible, the value of each impression shrinks. Meanwhile, more ad dollars continue to go to Facebook and Google than publishers. In order to stay afloat, publishers have had to change how they design content, making it less humane.

One of these changes is the shift in journalism from publishing a single well-researched article to many smaller pieces. “Do a bunch of quickly put-together pieces equal one deeply reported piece? Definitely not,” Funt said.

This vicious cycle affects readers’ expectations as well. “If you’re conditioning your readers to only want the shallow stuff, then you’re conditioning them against the bigger stuff,” he said. “Traditional publishers like The Washington Post or The New York Times did fluff stuff in order to fund the more serious journalism. BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post do the opposite. Their small amount of celebrated journalism is a branding tool, but they’re mostly committed to the fluff.”


Tech journalist Clive Thompson, who has written for Wired and The New York Times Magazine, is a bit more optimistic about the audience’s ability to affect change.

“Readers … have enormous power,” he said. “I’ve never believed the idea of the rewired brain because, among other things, I’ve changed my own habits. I turned off alerts and stopped reading email on the weekends.”

While Thompson doesn’t believe that our brains have been rewired by digital content, he does think that they’ve been hijacked. “One of the problems [with] media is it’s organized in reverse chronology,” he said. “It creates a psychology of saying the most important thing is the now. If you look away, you’re missing out. In one sense, it’s what the media has done for the past one hundred and fifty years. There’s a natural curiosity of the now. It’s healthy, but it can be hijacked.”

This rewiring can be tracked back to social media. The pacing of consumption has changed as publishers have flocked to Facebook and other platforms for distribution. Scrolling through your Twitter feed, you know firsthand how you quickly content piles up. You need to keep checking your feed to stay in the know.

Publishers looking to change how content affects their audience have to start by “creating priority” within their content. Thompson points to BuzzFeed as a positive example, since the publisher has a news app that prompts users if they want to get caught up on the latest stories. Instead of shoving every piece of content down your feed, Thompson believes publishers should prioritize only a handful of stories.

Newsletters are another way content creators can encourage more humane design. “Newsletters go back to the morning- and afternoon-edition model—news delivery on a more human scale,” Thompson said. “They fill people’s want to read something curated.”

While Thompson and Funt see the publishing world differently, they do agree on one thing when it comes to humane design: the problem with impressions. Funt wants media outlets to move away from measuring impressions and focus instead on engagement. Thompson told me the only way for publishers to thrive is if they chase wallets instead of eyeballs. In other words, instead of aiming for as many readers as possible, publishers should look for readers offering the most attention.

Some publishers are already pushing for this system. According to Thomas Hobbs at Marketing Week, publishers like The Financial Times and The Economist have started selling ads by “attention minutes.” And though support for a new model based on attention time has been slow, publishers are increasingly skeptical of impressions as a metric.

For impressions to finally become obsolete, publishers have to prove to advertisers that their audiences’ concentration is worth more than their clicks. Only then will audiences be treated as humans instead of just eyeballs.

Image by Getty

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