#btconf Düsseldorf, Germany 08 - 09 Nov 2021

Júlia Racskó

Júlia Racskó is a product designer and illustrator. She combines analytical and artistic thinking to get to the core of how our digital media environment became so exhausting, and how to design a nourishing one that is based on a holistic understanding of attention as a connection.

After living in Budapest, Milan and Geneva, she is currently a product designer at Steady Media in Berlin.

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Attentive Design – Moving from an Exhausting to a Nourishing Digital Media Environment

If we stopped tracking our attention as time spent, and started treating it as a living connection between us and the outside world, could we create a mentally sustainable digital media environment?

Do we measure how much we enjoyed going to the beach by the minutes spent in water? No? Then why do we keep using time spent as a success metric to track attention online? The evidence is there: optimising for advertisers and maximising the duration of information consumption damages our mental and emotional well-being.

How else could we keep the world wide web running, so it won’t exhaust our cognitive capacities? How could we steer it in a direction that will energise and nourish us? This talk looks at solutions at different scales and timelines and closes with a speculative, visual model to observe, record and show the aspects of our attentional capacities that truly matter. Using it hopefully will bring more flow into all of our lives, and inspire new, emotionally sustainable ideas for our media environment.



[Audience applause]

Julia Racsko:

[Audience laughs]

Julia: That never happened. Yeah, this makes me feel very tense. Yeah, I have choices to make with this tension. One would be to hide behind a couch. Flee from the situation.

I could also suppress this tension and fight through it.

[Audience laughs]

Julia: The other option would be is to build a connection with you, the audience, and with the topic I really care about.

Now, this is my big talk, so I will have three parts. The first part is:

So, how did we get here? Issue number one: The dominant model of attention that we use in digital product design is quite lazy. There is a big mismatch between what we measure and how we actually feel about the tension because, yeah, this is a very old definition about what attention is. With all due respect to William James, no, not everyone knows what attention is.

We all have assumptions about what attention is, how ours works. Some of these are great. Some of these are very sophisticated. The number of visitors or time spent is just not one of them.

[Audience laughs]

Julia: I was curious. I wanted to find out where did these numbers come from. Who started first using them? Maybe social media companies.

But no, that was Google. So, when they started the search engine, they measured the number of visitors and how many links pointed to that site, to this site, where should that particular site be in the ranking of the search results; how much that site was in the center of attention.

Yeah, issue number two: Our sensibilities when it comes to our attentional capacities is used against us for profit. Now we could say that this is not a technology problem. This might be a capitalism problem.

I really like this because it shows that when we focus on something, there are multiple cognitive processes happening at the same time. We select something to focus on, which is the light. We suppress the other thing, which is what will fall in the dark.

This flashlight has direction. It has range. It has strength.

Now, what happens in our digital media environment? Well, there will be a bunch of interferences messing with this flashlight of attention. There are external ones, internal ones.

Since this a dominant business model, sadly, a bunch of digital products also use these patterns when they are not even funded by advertisers.

We all know clickbait-y headlines, for example. But look at this quote.

For a sense of safety, we are always trying to be aware of our surroundings, right? If I hear a car honking, then I would want to hear that and not keep reading my book and get the hell out of the way. However, this is a vulnerability that can then be exploited because we are always looking for more information. We are foraging for more. And due to that, we have a scarcity mindset when it comes to information.

This cycle makes our flashlight way more jumpy. It makes the flashlight nervous because we are constantly trying to get as much information as we can.

Issue number three: Our digital habits are counterproductive by design. We have this tension from how our attention is being manipulated or controlled. We have tension like the pandemic, just general life tension. We have the competing goals between what we want to focus on, what we are suppressing, so there is tension coming from a lot of places.

Our digital habits that we use, we expect--

Sorry. English as a second language moment.

These habits that we have online, we expect them to release this tension, and it does the opposite because what would actually release the tension is to have a moment of relaxation of flow.

This is the first half of the definition of flow from Csikszentmihalyi, one of the founders of positive psychology. Many of us know it, right?

We select a task that we can fully focus on, and attention melts away because we have a deep and effortless involvement that removes awareness of the worries and frustrations. We do not have competing goals anymore and that feels lovely.

It also goes deeper than that. This is where it gets philosophical, almost spiritual, is that because of these experiences, we feel like we have a sense of control over the flashlight of our attention or over our life. Because of that, our sense of self gets stronger.

These are the lines that the flashlight could draw.

We come up with micro versions of survival strategies. Many of us know fight and flight. Freeze and fawn are lesser-known, but longer-term responses. Many of our online habits can be mirrored on these.

Flight responses are, I would say, these hyper activities when we have like 20 tabs open and chat programs - Slack. We also check our phones, so we are anywhere but in our bodies. We are not connected.

Freeze could be, yeah, binge-watching or just very passive consumption when we get to the point where it takes more effort to stop watching or stop scrolling than it would take to stay there.

Yeah, all of these behaviors in itself are fine. They can be useful. But the question is, how you feel afterward, more depleted or more energized?

Unfortunately, these 4F responses are also a cycle. If we keep doing it more, it gets easier to slip into them, and then we will have capacity to experience this more instead of flow.

Then this is how the digital media environment can feel if we are really stuck in this cycle.

Yeah, we have advice of how to get out of it. Detox. Go for a walk and whatnot.

Oh, come on!

[Audience laughter]

Julia: Oh, come on! [Laughter] We can do this.

[Audience chatter]

Julia: Okay. At least this is still a virtual space. We are not in a physical spaceship, but not for long.


Okay. This is going to be fun.

We have a big mismatch in how we measure attention and how it actually feels. This mismatch makes our attention capacity biased towards the advertisers and our vulnerabilities weaponized against us. We can either pick from creating a cycle of flow with our habits or a cycle of fight, flight, freeze, fawn responses.

Or we can just ask the advertisers to not pay for it anymore. But probably this is not going to work as a full-time solution.

But we can instead start paying the people who are actually making this whole World Wide Web still worthwhile to stick around. And that would be through, yeah, the creator economy or passion economy, which is right now a booming market, because the people can create direct connection with their audience and their community can signal directly what is valuable to them, so it will be biased towards them now.

But the playing field for people who are actually making a living through this can be leveled even more. There can grants. This is still a dream, but I hope it will happen one day.

That brings us to what can designers do (right away) because this is really the area where we are the best.

What I also find very interesting is that, in the creator economy, we still keep going back to older designs, so we use emails, we use RSS feeds to go back to times before we had algorithmic feeds.

Of course, I also really love this book from Pamela Pavliscak that presents several design patterns that Mastodon could have used because they had every liberty to do so, every freedom.

But we can still prototype experiences this way before we make them into a digital product, which is what the TRU LUV studio is doing, for example. They particularly focus on creating attend and befriend digital interactions instead of fight, flight, freeze, fawn. So, how could our digital rituals look like?

See the flashlight? It goes away after a second. And I really wanted to show something where I can see the flow of attention and mental energy.

Now I toyed a bit with the idea of, okay, what about biometric data? But I threw that away for two reasons.

[Audience laughs]


I can also show that two people can have a totally different presence in the same space. Here, this person is in their own world, very focused, while this other person seems more distracted, checking her phone quite often, all over the place. She seems nervous. There are people in the back, chatting, disturbing everyone because this is a library.

Now I wanted to make this model more accessible to others, so I have run a few workshops with that just to see that, get people to think about how their attention works. How are their energy levels between different interactions? Also, because I was very excited to find out about their interpretations or their insights about it.

The second exercise was, yeah, how did your last 24 hours go? How was your last day? Because the flow state says that the sense of time disappears. But what is normally your sense of time?

Some people drew an even based little calendar that, okay, this is what happens and this is how I feel about it.

Some people drew something that was more about screens and spaces. Yeah, you can see that this was deep in the pandemic during lockdown when all the activities were indoors in their own apartment.

We have daily cycles too. Come on.

Again, a circle for a calendar that has some flow in the beginning and the middle and more exciting or more or other things in the end. I also really like this drawing because this shows the desire that, okay, my usual day is pretty full. I have a lot to attend to. But in my perfect day, that would be a more quiet, serene experience. There would be just less to focus on.

Yeah, what is clear from this drawn model is that, yeah, we cannot maximize just for one pattern because then we would have a very boring overall view that we are always in the same mindset. Variety should be the aim here.

We can work on drawing those lines and cultivate more and more of these connections. For that, we need to examine our own assumptions about attention and our own biases about it. What are the ones that we want to cultivate in our own lives? How can we be the ones holding our flashlight and not just trying to control it with outside tools? How can we draw our own attentional pattern? How can we maintain this connection, a rich connection with the outside world?

If there is one thing that I want you to take away from this talk is that please be bored. Otherwise, you will be very boring.

[Audience laughs]

Julia: Thank you.

[Audience applause]