Former Google and Apple exec now challenges Stanford students to design products that make people happy

Key Points
  • The human brain evolved to scan for things that improve our survivability, Ellen Leanse says.
  • But these days many of us are scanning for Facebook 'Likes' and other social media notifications instead.
  • Leanse teaches a Stanford course that encourages students to design products that spur creativity and positive experiences in users.

Ellen Leanse is serious about getting people to reconsider their use of technology.

We're at a table together at a San Francisco restaurant when she sees me quickly scan a message alert on my phone.

"Did you know it's now going to take you at least six minutes to fully re-focus on this conversation?" she asks.

"That's how long seeing a phone light-up disrupts our thought processes, between six and 23 minutes," she says, staring first at me, then my phone.

My explanation — that a reporter has to be available to answer questions when an editor is working on one of their stories — fails to elicit any sympathy. I turn the device over to hide the screen and get back to our interview.

It doesn't pay to argue about technology use with Leanse, who in rapid succession can cite a half-dozen academic studies to support her belief that hardware and software are impacting consumers in ways that experts are just starting to understand.

"The human brain is built to scan for things that improve our chances for survival, things like warnings of threats or opportunities" for food, shelter or a chance to mate, she explains.

But these days online platforms are prompting us to scan our phones repeatedly for Facebook shares, Twitter notifications and texts from friends, family or impatient editors.

Most of us don't consider that our motivations for doing so have little to do with our ancient survival instincts. Instead, according to Leanse, the use of social media is more about increasing our sense of belonging or affirming a positive self-image.

Therein lies a potential danger — that we humans will begin to focus on a narrower set of experiences, ones that provide us with emotional rewards but make us less creative and less adaptable, Leanse says.

"What we don't know (about the motivations behind our actions) shapes our perceptions as much as what we do," she says.

Designers should be asking about their products: "Does it activate the same neuro processes as other addictive experiences?"

Apple, Google and 'The Happiness Hack'

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 admitted that 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: How 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.