Mark Hurrell.


Imagine a world

15 August 2018

Logic Do you see rank-and-file tech workers expressing doubts about what they’re building?

Anonymous engineer When you’re an engineer, you’re constantly being told to do things that are clearly not good for the user. If you’re building any kind of app or platform that makes its money from advertising, you are trying to maximize “time spent” – how long a user spends with your product. Time spent is considered a proxy for value delivered to the user, because if your product wasn’t useful, the user wouldn’t be using it.

Here’s how it typically works. An order comes down from on high: the board says to increase revenue. What's the best way the management team knows to increase revenue? To increase time spent. So they issue the order, which gets percolated down the tree, and now everyone is working on increasing time spent. This means making the product more addictive, more absorbing, more obtrusive. And it works: the user starts spending more time with the product.

But every worker knows this is bad. Every engineer and designer knows this is awful. They’re not happy making these features. But they can’t argue with the data. The engineer and the designer who care about the user don’t want to put these features out in the world. But the data says those features are increasing time spent – which means they’re good. Because more time spent means selling more advertising, which means making more money.

L And so long as you’re working for an advertising company, what other metric besides time spent could there be?

So long as you’re working for a company, what other metric besides profit could there be? That’s a similar question. You can make small surface-level improvements here and there. But you’re not going to tackle the core problem until you tackle the profit motive.

The directives to increase metrics like time spent come from above, but the actual work is being done by tech workers on the ground. And they're doing this work because their performance is measured by whether or not they moved that metric and whether or not they implemented those features – even if they know they’re bad for users.

But there's no way they can push back on it. They can talk about it – in their company Slack, in their public forums, at their all-hands meetings. They can express a lot of malaise about it. But they can’t argue against the experiment succeeding, because you can’t argue against increased profits.

You could imagine different structures of the company that might not have this problem. You could imagine a world where these companies empower rank-and-file workers to make certain decisions themselves, and give users a voice in those decisions. Workers and users could together decide what metrics to optimize for, and what kind of technology they want to build.

Life aboard the rocket ship, Logic Magazine

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