2016 was like a 90’s Rock Festival and I’m ready to go home

It is early morning and I have been at the festival for the past 8 hours, listening to music. Well, not so much listening to the music as experiencing the music. As I look down at my clothing, I see all the stains from the dried sweat that has now begun to create an uncomfortable stench in the car. I also notice for the first time that there’s some dried blood on my shorts. I don’t know who’s blood it is. It could be mine, or someone else’s blood who had been packed into the audience next to me. I try to think back to everything that just went on, but to be honest, it is really hard. My only hope now is that I can make it home safe, sleep in my own bed and wake up tomorrow – with my feet on firm ground.

That memory is what remains from a festival I went to in 1997 or 1998, but it’s exactly how I feel as 2016 comes to a close. I feel like I just got the hell beat out of me. Getting shoved into mosh pits, tasting other people’s sweat and finding their dried blood on my clothing. And now I am ready to go home. However, I hope that I do not forget what happened in 2016. It’s the wisdom we gain through these experiences that can make our future much better and more optimistic.

The past couple years, I have been in survival mode.  Transition to the next day, the next challenge, survive and then move on. That is one reason why my habit of writing end of year reviews and setting goals ended. I was hoping to get through the next couple months, let alone trying to optimize my planning to thrive over the next year. However, now that 2017 is here – I am optimistic that I can generate some of the best experiences that I have had over the past 38 years. I am planning for it.

For 2017, I have decided to write down the experiences that I want to have, opposed to a goal I want to accomplish. It is probably semantics, but I believe by stating the experience and emotions, it will help me expend energy in appropriate ways. I also want to sit down on 12/28/2017 and write about all the things I experienced over the past year. That feels more motivating then being able to share a check list of items I completed.

So here it is, my experience list of 2017:

– I want to know what my body feels like and discover the sense of accomplishment I have after running 30 consecutive days.

– I want to uncover the mental awareness available after doing Tara Brach’s guided meditations for 20 consecutive days.

– I want to experience the anxiety and discomfort associated with completely disconnecting for 3 consecutive days (and hopefully the benefits at the end).

– I want to feel the excitement and pride associated with making the sale, that brings 50% of Ventre Tech Revenues from product sales.

– I want to experience the pounding of my heart, after running a sub 5:30 mile during a 5k again.

– I want to feel the fatigue and grittiness of a 3 day / 2 night back packing weekend on the Sheltowee Trace.

– I want to know the satisfaction associated with 1,000+ users, using software daily, I helped develop.

– I want to be immersed in a moment with someone, where it feels like time stands still, anxiety is absent and conversation is easy.

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Designing for health: Balancing user distraction and engagement.

What are the guiding principles that product managers, designers and developers need to consider when it comes to user engagement and attention distraction?  I find this to be an especially critical question for those of us who are focused on making a user’s life happier and healthier. The dilemma is trying to balance the two different outcomes we hope our products achieve:

1. A user engages with the product consistently.

2. The product helps the user optimize their lives by empowering them to make choices that support their health behaviors and decision making.

These two outcomes can be challenging to achieve in perfect harmony, as highlighted in a recent discussion between Jason Calacanis and Adam Gazzaley on the podcast This Week in Startups. In the discussion, Gazzaley,  author of “The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World”,  shares his research on distraction and its impact on human behavior. The most interesting conversation was when they were talking about social media usage, the distractions that it causes and the impact it can have on mental health. My understanding was that too much distraction, without awareness and guidelines, can lead to increases in anxiety, depression and other mood imbalances.

Understanding how to engage and gain the attention of a user is one place a user’s health needs to be considered when we are developing our products. If we know that constant distractions are potentially detrimental to a user’s health, are we prepared to make design decisions that engage our users in a healthy way? Even when we understand that we should filter creative decisions through this lens, do we design the applications so each user has the freedom to set up the level of engagement they want, or do we remove distractions from the user experience completely? These decisions clearly require careful thought within the context of each development process, however having an ethos that underpins your development philosophy is essential.

The reason that this ethos is critical, is due to the fact that at some point you will be faced with the observation that users are not engaging with your product as much as you (or your investors) would like. In these situations, how will you respond? If it is in your development ethos to prioritize user health over user engagement, it will help you continue developing a supportive and effective application.

The discussion of notifications and distractions is not one sided.  Having some distraction does not necessarily mean the product is only negatively impacting the user’s health. The optimistic side of this product design decision making, is that when an application can engage a user at the right moment in time, it can support a user’s goal to live healthier. The insertion of an appropriate ‘trigger’ is part of the theoretical foundation of B.J. Fogg’s behavior change model. When our products can provide a trigger to the user at the right moment, paired with a behavior that is within their ability and given adequate motivation, then our products can become a positive tool for change.

In the interview, Gazzaley said multiple times that one of the best behaviors an individual can have to combat negative impacts of distraction is to engage in physical activity and exercise. One positive strategy I have seen in multiple technologies and applications is to provide a nudge towards movement precisely at the moment a user will find themselves getting ready to read their Facebook, Twitter or email inbox.

I conclude with a question targeted at myself and others creating products that desire to improve a user’s health and happiness:  How are we defining the amount of distraction and engagement required by a user, as we design our products?