Technologists Who Want to Talk About Feelings

“Why are we talking about how people feel? Aren’t we supposed to be working on a digital strategy?”

I recently heard this statement spoken by a C-level executive from a well-known national nonprofit. We were reviewing the results of our research on a digital strategy project, and she was openly wondering if we were focusing on the wrong thing. It was a tense moment.

The organization wanted a digital strategy that would streamline their technology, helping their staff serve more people. By serving more people, the organization will increase its impact. It’s a worthy goal. A self-evident goal. The kind of goal you can calculate in a spreadsheet.

We talked to staff across the country to understand how new technology could help them be more efficient. We came back with one big insight:

People did have a problem with the technology they were currently using. But what they wanted more than anything else was to be more connected to the people they were serving and the impact they were having on their lives.

We agreed that there was great opportunity to make their technology more efficient. However, by focusing only on efficiency, their staff were feeling loss of purpose, disillusionment, and burnout. Efficiency looked a lot better in the spreadsheet than in real human lives.

Digital innovation has an ethics problem. We’ve been taught to measure against two core values: efficiency and scale. Faster. More.

We idolize the digital products and companies that are exemplars by these measures: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, etc. But if our measuring sticks make it admirable to be really good at getting people to scroll through an endless feed, buy stuff they don’t need, or binge watch TV, we need better measuring sticks.

I get to meet leaders every single week — CEOs and heads of digital, design, and innovation — who are working on thoughtfully applying digital technology to complex human problems and experiences. They’re providing high-quality health care to low-income patients, helping first-generation college students find community, building healthy eating habits in young children, and so much more.

These folks don’t make big headlines because their work doesn’t look impressive when you’re measuring against “faster” and “more.” But I propose we desperately need to add another measure: is your technology making peoples’ lives meaningfully better? Is it helping humans beings actually flourish, instead of capitalizing on our most basic impulses?

No need to throw away efficiency. Technology is great at making tasks more efficient, and it’s a valid goal. But efficiency by itself is inadequate.

We need more technologists who start with empathy. We need a collective vision that goes beyond faster and more.

If you’re one of the many people we know working to keep “human flourishing” in the center of your digital work, let’s keep doing it! And if you’re not sure, take five minutes to read the 12 questions in Harvard’s human flourishing scale. How does your digital work measure up to the efforts that make real humans’ lives better?

Let’s ask ourselves harder questions than faster and more. And let’s keep talking about how people feel.

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