Engagement, Disengagement, or Something In Between? Reframing Technology Use by Promoting User Agency

Engagement, Disengagement, or Something In Between? Reframing Technology Use by Promoting User Agency

Heather O’Brien, Nilou Davoudi, Ido Roll and Andrea Kampen

Digital technologies can be bad for us. The Centre for Humane Technology keeps a running list of “harms,” including decreased health and well-being, increased political polarisation, and mis/disinformation. More and more people are deleting their social media accounts, including celebrity influencers, and there are trends toward “digital minimalism,” and the right to disconnect. At the same time, we rely heavily on technologies to keep us informed and socially connected.  Many industries are constructing digital solutions to major challenges in healthcare, environmental sustainability, and education. Disengaging from digital life is not an option (or desire) for many people.

Engagement is defined as capturing and holding people’s attention and encouraging continuous interaction. Autoplay videos, nudges toward sensational content, and algorithms tailored to our search and viewing histories keep us clicking, scrolling, and invested. Disengagement may be a solution to problematic technology use. However, in a recent paper published in Computers in Human Behaviour, we explored user engagement and disengagement, uncovering common misconceptions.

—Negative emotions may help people persist with their goals.—

User engagement is always positive

Engagement is often defined as a positive, enjoyable experience. This may lead to engineering experiences that leave no room for negative feelings like frustration, uncertainty or confusion. However, education researchers have found that frustrated students were more engaged in online learning than bored students. Negative emotions may help people persist with their goals. The value of negative emotions as part of engagement should not be discounted. In addition, we must distinguish short- and long-term emotional experiences. Scrolling for hours on Instagram may be absorbing and enjoyable (short-term), but leave users feeling guilty about wasting time (long-term). Instagram’s “Take A Break” tries to prevent this by encouraging periodic breaks. Thus, we should consider both short- and long-term engagement.

More activity does not mean more engagement

More clicks, views and saves do not always translate to more engagement. Algorithms based on metrics like duration and frequency focus on short- rather than long-term use and fail to consider users’ needs. In the case of mental health, apps may appear to be engaging (based on frequency and duration metrics) but tend to be abandoned by users within the first ten days. This may be because they do not consider people’s goals or broader (out of app) context.

Engagement must be continuous 

Although the majority of apps are designed to keep people using them, taking a break may support engagement in the long run. Often referred to as the  “Zeigernik effect,” stepping back from a task may help generate new ideas and solutions. For instance, World of Warcraft (WOW) gamers will engage with books, manuals, videos, etc. to optimise WOW play. This practice is called “theorycrafting” and allows players to remain engaged with WOW, just not through the digital application. 

Toward a new model of user engagement

Rather than thinking about engagement as positive versus negative, continuous versus discontinuous, or active versus passive, we considered that engagement and disengagement are part of the same experience. The challenge is that user agency—the ability for users to exercise control over their technology use—is missing from how we currently think about and design for engagement.   

We built on early work that illustrated engagement as a positive to negative continuum to include an axis of agency (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Positive/negative, low/high agency model of user engagement

Positive engagement, Low agency

  • User is absorbed in the activity and has positive emotions, but may feel guilty for wasting time. This is often exhibited with the compulsive use of an app or a task.

Positive engagement, High agency

  • User is interested and enjoying the task because they feel in control of the interaction and their goals are being met. This quadrant is optimal for the user (and the technology developer) because people will want to use it in future. 

Negative engagement, Low agency

  • User is frustrated, overwhelmed, or unmotivated. They may feel bored, passive and lack control over what is happening. 

Negative engagement, High agency

  • User is feeling negative emotions, such as frustration. They may pause or disengage temporarily to think about a solution and be more engaged and productive when they re-engage.

Reframing disengagement in this way allows us to think about the role of technologies for people, places, and real-world outcomes. We need to consider how the design of new technologies impacts the people who use them. The challenge is that existing business models of tech companies prioritise low agency, positive engagement and work to minimise friction, which leads to hyper-engagement. We need to design for the high agency quadrants and promote people over profit.


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Cite this article in APA as: Davoudi, N., Kampen, A., O’Brien, H., & Roll, I. (2022, May 2). Engagement, disengagement, or something in between? Reframing technology use by promoting user agency. Information Matters, Vol. 2, Issue 5.

Heather O'Brien

Heather O'Brien is Associate Professor at the School of Information, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada.