A scientist’s opinion : Interview with Prof Sarah Diefenbach about digital well-being

Interview with Sarah Diefenbach, Professor of Marketing and Consumer Psychology at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, German.

What does your research investigate exactly?

Sarah Diefenbach ESMH scientistSarah Diefenbach: In general, my research is centred on digital products from a psychological perspective. On the one hand, this includes the application of psychological knowledge (“psychological needs frameworks”, for example) in product design to develop products that provide a positive user experience and make people happy. Quite often, this inspires unusual and innovative products. One example is a digital picture frame that hides a special picture that can only be revealed by a unique hand gesture. This is in line with the human need for autonomy and secrecy and other typically related interactions (for a relevant case study on this, see this article).

On the other hand, my research also reveals some of the negative consequences of technology, for example: social conflicts that arise from continuous smartphone use (and the diminishing attention we give our conversation partners), poor self-reflection related to increasing smartphone use in moments of solitude, and the “selfie-paradox” – the finding that while most people want to see fewer selfies on social media, those same people also take and share selfies on a regular basis. For further reading on these topics, see the following articles on ‘Disrespectful Technologies: Social Norm Conflicts in Digital Worlds’, ‘The Smartphone as a Pacifier and its Consequences’, and ‘The Selfie Paradox: Nobody Seems to Like Them Yet Everyone Has Reasons to Take Them. An Exploration of Psychological Functions of Selfies in Self-Presentation’.

What do you hope to achieve by studying digital well-being?

Sarah Diefenbach: In the domain of digital well-being and self-improvement tools, I try to come up with approaches that support designers to develop tools that help users reach their personal goals, but also respect the “bittersweet nature” of self-regulation and change, to come up with visual and interactive designs that are engaging and motivating, and to help people to overcome potential barriers to change.

What conclusions have you drawn from your research?

Sarah Diefenbach: All people will likely benefit from reflecting on their ideals, but bitter components and barriers to change prove more difficult for some. These are the people who would like to change their routines, but rarely succeed in doing so (a particularly relevant target group), whereas people with comparatively high levels of motivation and skills for self-improvement are seen as “self-driven individuals”. However, many existing behavioural intervention technologies are primarily suited to this latter non-target group, i.e. people who are already passionate about self-optimisation and support their own self-change through reminders and feedback. Those who could benefit the most from these technologies, for example insufficiently active people, are highly sensitive to user experience issues. The design of self-improvement technologies should therefore be adjusted to the needs of people who require support.

My developed model of supporting change allows anyone to enter the “positive change spiral” by actively considering both the “bitter” and “sweet” aspects of self-change. It assumes that self-initiated change is possible by being rooted in the ideas of positive psychology and the belief in people’s capabilities. Nevertheless, incorporating this into our daily lives can be a highly strenuous process. Therefore, understanding what makes change “sweeter” or more “bitter” for people appears to be a key factor in their success.

Positive Technology – an interdisciplinary field – requires an overall framework to combine the best knowledge from different disciplines. The collective task is to use insights about human behaviour and motivation from psychology and the social sciences to develop design concepts and product-mediated interventions through technology.

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