Ellen Leanse is serious about getting people to reconsider their use of technology.
A growing chorus has begun to criticize Facebook, Google and other tech companies, saying their services are having negative emotional effects on heavy users.
A group of child advocates and other consumer groups asked Facebook to shut down its Messenger for Kids app, citing studies showing that teens who use social media a lot have higher rates of depression and lower self-esteem.
Two large investors of Apple last month called on the company to address concerns that overuse of its phones can lead to negative “long-term consequences.”
In December, Facebook researchers admittedthat using the service to passively consume content on the site, as opposed to interacting with others, could have a downside.
All this reflection is old news to Leanse, who’s been evaluating how tech companies communicate with users for over three decades.
In the mid-1980s she was named Apple’s first “user evangelist” and founded early internet-based groups the computer company used to get feedback from users.
A decade ago she was the global head of marketing communications for Google’s enterprise unit.
These days she teaches an online course for Stanford University called “Unleashing Creative Innovation and Building Great Products.” It combines principles of “cognitive neuroscience, design frameworks and evolutionary biology,” she says.
One of the purposes of the course, whose required textbook is called, “Your Brain at Work,” is to challenge students “to consider how new technologies exploit human tendencies toward addictive behavior.”
The course covers techie topics such as “systems thinking” but also dives into eastern thought, with discussions on ancient Buddhist wisdom and modern takes on it, like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” One of the discussions is titled “Becoming Steve Jobs.”
In that sense the course is a counterpoint to another taught at Stanford by Nir Eyal, whose book “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products,” is a best-seller of product design.
Eyal’s book is also recommended reading for Leanse’s class.
Tellingly, Eyal has begun to challenge tech-product designers to adopt a new code of ethics to protect users from potential downsides of habit-forming software.
Such talk is music to the ears of Leanse, who has also given a TED talk called “Happiness by Design.”
More recently she’s written a book called “The Happiness Hack: Hot to Take Control of Your Brain and Program More Happiness into your Life.”
The goal of all these efforts, she says, is to help users of technology to cultivate “a responsive mind,” or one that’s mindful of how it’s working, rather than “a reactive mind” that merely runs routines like a computer program.