Co.Design

YouTube's Original UI Designer On Creating Great Tech With People At The Center

Christina Brodbeck offers her own startup, which aims to help people strengthen their romantic relationships, as a case study in designing experiences that transcend pixels.

For years, we have been building technology that makes our lives more efficient. With just a few clicks of my cell phone, I can call a cab, have dinner delivered to my door, deposit a check, and unlock my office. All these advancements have arguably made me a more productive person, but none of them has made me a better one.

Creating time-efficiency solutions are great for the economy, but there are larger issues impacting our country—and divorce is one of them. With the average divorce costing state and federal governments approximately $30,000, the United States spends billions of dollars a year on marital breakdown. This is a perfect example of a large problem that can be partially addressed with technology.

I am the cofounder of theicebreak, an app and a website that helps couples keep the spark alive in their relationships by fostering dialogue. Relationships evolve, so we decided to design a product that evolves with them. For it to be effective, we realized theicebreak had to also be addictive and fun. Along the way, we developed some criteria for creating technology that tunes into human emotions, while taking into account our pressed-for-time lifestyles. Here they are:

Make It Mobile, To Foster Bite-Sized Interactions

We live in a culture driven by convenience and fun. People are accustomed to instant gratification and constant two-way communication. Sixty-six percent of Americans between the ages of 24 and 35 own a smartphone. In building theicebreak, we first wanted to address what wasn’t working in traditional relationship improvement. For example, relationship how-to books are often static, boring, and don’t provide interaction between you and your partner.

We knew that we had to design a product that fits today’s couple, so we made it convenient and accessible with a mobile app. We focused on getting our users to do the relationship work in a playful manner, ideally so that they wouldn’t feel like they were doing all the heavy lifting on their own. And because no one has gobs of free time, we devised snack-size activities that take no more than two minutes out of a busy day.

Don’t Just Facilitate Conversations, Start Them

It’s time for technology to go beyond the status update and create a genuine dialogue. We send users a daily question to engage them in conversation with their partner. Some examples include "Would you ever consider adopting a child if you couldn’t have your own?" or "What’s your idea of a successful relationship?" When you respond, your answer is shared with your partner. We have created conversations, not just facilitated them—an important difference.

Current social networks are great for vanity postings and connecting with friends. They aren’t, however, very good at enhancing the relationship with your partner. In fact, according to a study conducted by Divorce Online, a legal services firm, one out of every three U.K. couples who ended their marriage in 2011 cited Facebook as the cause. Most social networks are designed to connect an individual with the many. Before posting online, one often considers how it will make them look or how many likes it will receive. In building theicebreak, we knew that real dialogue between partners couldn’t happen if they felt they were being judged or analyzed. Therefore, we put a lot of thought into designing a product that is a safe space where people can be open about their feelings, vulnerabilities, and opinions. Theicebreak makes privacy very easy to ensure; if it’s a private post, only your partner can see it. If it’s a public post, the community can see it, but only in an anonymous fashion where your true identity is never revealed.

Aim To Enhance Real-World Interactions, Not Replace Them

At the end of the day, what matters most is people. Too many times we design technology to be an all-encompassing solution; in fact, we should design technology to empower people. Kickstarter is a perfect example of a well-designed service that enables people to make both their own and others’ dreams come true. Vayable, another great service, creates real-world connections by enabling anyone to become a guide and share their knowledge and passion with other travelers.

We should design technology with people at the heart of it. Technology should get out of the way and help individuals stand out. When I’m interacting with my boyfriend on theicebreak, I want it to feel like I am communicating with him, not the app. His emotions and feelings need to come through in every part of the design. The UI needs to fade into the background, making the words and sentiment of the people the focal point.

At theicebreak, I love getting emails from users telling me about how an interaction they had on the site led to an offline conversation. The real-world happiness and insight they received from that conversation is more important than how much time they spend on theicebreak. At its best, technology can help foster better communication and connection in the physical world.

We have to make thoughtful decisions as a society about the types of technology and products we want to build and support. We have the freedom to choose where to put our development resources. It’s not easy, but if we put our mind to it we can create solutions that increase happiness, change the world, and even benefit our economy.

This piece is part of a Collaborative Fund-curated series on creativity and values written by thought leaders in the for-profit, for-good business space.

[Image: Norberto Mario Lauria/Shutterstock]

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4 Comments

  • Raul

    Love the product goals of facilitating discussions without worry of being judged or analyzed -- at least by the whole network.

  • Paul

    Please check your research on the "33% of divorcing UK couples cited Facebook as a cause." There's a lot of discussion of this quetionable statistic available, and if you look closely, you'll see that it refers to people who responded to a particular UK website, and that it refers to "beaviour petitions," which are apparetly only one way of filing for a divorce in Great Britain, and the mentions include people posting nasties about one another on FB after separating.  A very unreliable statistic, it would seem.

  • Jesse Kinsman

    Alright, I know I am going to be lambasted for this, but here goes. 

    I think a technology solution to help couples interact could be good, however asking them hypothetical questions about issues such as not having kids just seems like digging into an emotional area that may or may not arise as a couple.

    Why start a discussion that could end up in a serious disagreement about something that may never, ever have to be addressed as a couple?

    I know my wife loves these type of hypothetical questions, so I could understand how a female could see this as helpful. Will be interesting to see how men respond.