If you are a fan of comedian Bo Burnham like I am, you may have been as surprised as I was when, in the midst of a Covid-plagued summer, Netflix released his first new comedy special in five years, titled Inside.
However, instead of performing for crowds in theaters, he is alone in a small, studio-style room performing for a camera. Here he writes, performs, and produces his latest existential song-based comedy content in the midst of a worldwide pandemic.
There are a lot of reasons to analyze some of the key themes presented throughout his provocative, 87-minute special. It presents a shocking view of the deterioration of mental health alongside some hard-hitting socio-political satire. My focus, however, will be on the conflict around technology and our interactions with it. For me, this means examining the ethical and sociological roles that UX professionals hold in this allegorical circus of never-ending content.
Here are 2 quotes from Bo Burnham’s “Inside” that UX professionals should be thinking about as we continue to build an increasingly digital world.
#1: “Maybe… maybe the… the flattening of the entire subjective human experience into a… lifeless exchange of value that benefits nobody, except for, um, you know, a handful of bug-eyed salamanders in Silicon Valley…Maybe that as a… as a way of life forever… maybe that’s, um, not good.”
To understand the importance of this quote, we should first ask ourselves what UX really is.
I like to reference Syndicode's UX pyramid: UX at its most basic level is partly about making experiences that are functional, reliable, and usable. Those who utilize it effectively, however, know that beyond these three basic needs, UX is about making experiences convenient, enjoyable, and significant.
From Bo’s perspective, we’ve put so much focus on making our digital interactions convenient or enjoyable that we have forgotten to make them significant. This “flattening” of the entire subjective human experience should be a huge concern for UX professionals if we consider ourselves the architects of exciting, layered, and non-flattened experiences.
This lack of significance in our digital interactions is echoed in the second Inside quote featured here:
#2: “That the outside world, the non-digital world, is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space….One should only engage with the outside world as one engages with a coal mine…Suit up, gather what is needed, and return to the surface.”
In this monologue, Bo highlights the superficial and staged nature of our real-world interactions for the “preservation” of our digital ones. We have full control over what people see and don’t see and are therefore able to maintain the personal brand we have created for ourselves.
This may seem like an exaggerated description of our reliance on performative self-identity. But can you think of a time when you were so intent on capturing a moment for later that you missed what was happening now? I’m willing to bet that you can. UX professionals could lead the charge in eliminating these harmful or reductive technological products and practices by harnessing empathy and critical thinking. However, we must remain diligent and intentional in our efforts and constructive methods. For example, Snapchat deployed Streaks in 2016, adding a bit of gamification to the experience by allowing users to track how many days they have snapped someone in a row. The external intention was to encourage users to have consistent engagement with friends, but the trend – for many – has turned into a pointless exchange of blank screens labeled simply, “Streaks.” UX professionals can and should imagine ways to revive and redimentionalize this trend into a valuable interaction.
If you’re thinking about engaging in UX or enlisting a UX team for your own work, I encourage you to think of UX as more than a usability tool. Instead, consider it the first step in making experiences that have depth and make a significant impact in your users’ lives. Use inclusivity indexes in your research to make sure you are truly representing all corners of your user group. Take greater care when creating personas to think of what the user wants and what they need - and use that to tell your UX story.
Although presented through a satirical lens, Inside presents an aggressive look at our reliance on technology. Those of us who were too young to witness the creation of this technology, but old enough to be deeply impacted by its rise and adoption in our daily lives, should not forget the mistakes made and the factors left unconsidered during that time.
As UX professionals, we should be thinking about the bigger picture. We should strive to use UX as a tool for good by eliminating and preventing harmful technological habits, and pointing our focus to enriching interactions that have lost their value and meaning.
At Key Lime Interactive, we are taking strides to build interactions and experiences with depth for everyone. We can help you tackle those hard-hitting questions you may have for your product with thoughtful and inclusive UX research and design approaches. Contact our team for more information and let us help you make experiences that are significant.