The Second-order Effect

Do you ever feel like you aren’t living your best life when you see people posting about their amazing lives on Social Media? Do you ever feel left out when you see fun reels from your friend’s goa vacation?

The Second-Order Effect

Most social media platform algorithms promote content that appeals to the user’s desires. While it seems like a no-brainer to design to appeal to the end customer, every design decision often causes a series of secondary consequences. This chain reaction is called as “Second-Order Effect”. It is based on the idea that every decision made in building a product initiates a series of subsequent consequences that affect the users in unpredictable ways.

Second Order Effect and Design Decisions.

As a product is built from the ground up, design decisions are constantly being made that will have an impact on the end result. Despite there being an anticipated/desired outcome, we are often unaware of secondary consequences.

Design has the power to transform entire societies and reform existing behaviors. It would be impossible to predict that Social Media Platforms would facilitate huge uprisings or online political debates.

Some examples would be:

  1. In some cases, WhatsApp’s optimization for sharing led people to share information blindly, without verifying the source or even reading it themselves.
  2. Instagram Reels have decreased people’s attention span significantly.
  3. OTT Platforms have got people hooked to shows and movies, thus reducing their productivity.

In each of these examples, it would have been impossible to predict the effects of decisions taken. Each of these platforms could have been designed to connect people or provide entertainment, but most of the time the chain doesn’t stop there.

How can we design better experiences to avoid negative Second-Order Effects?

  • While there is no certain solution for this problem, we can prioritize usability studies and research to understand the user's interaction with the product.
  • Following good design practices can help minimize negative impact.
  • It is also important that we’re able to anticipate second-order effects, in order to build a solution for it simultaneously.

Conclusion

Second-order effects refer to both the negative and positive impacts caused by a decision. While some decisions end up causing more harm than good, some decision end up impacting people for the better. Considering the user’s needs and designing with their best interests in mind is the best thing we can do.

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Neeha Fathima

UX Designer, psychology enthusiast, part-time philosopher and bibliophile. 🌻