Reflections of reality: What can we take from Black Mirror as designers?

Steph and Charlotte evaluate the socio-political implications of Black Mirror technologies and their real-world counterparts through a series of design themes.

Illustration of a cracked screen.

Charlie Brooker’s award-winning Black Mirror offers a (fictional) glimpse into the near future. 

Each episode revolves around cutting-edge technology that tests and breaks countless ethical and moral boundaries. Quite often, this new tech is initially popular but either ends up in the wrong hands, malfunctions, or negatively impacts users over time. 

With that in mind, we evaluate ‘the intention’ vs ‘the reality’ of some of the technologies within the show and reflect on alternative solutions to the issues we seek to remedy as designers.

Warning: contains spoilers.

Season 1, Episode 2:  15 Million Merits

15 Million Merits centres around Bing, a young man who must pedal an exercise bike all day, surrounded by screens, to accumulate merits that can be spent on food, and activites. As he cycles, Bing is forced to watch advertisements that he cannot afford to skip. One day, he encourages his love interest, Abi, to enter a talent show, to escape their dystopian reality. Abi is inevitably commodified, having entered the show, and Bing is unable to skip a sexualised advert of hers. In protest, Bing outs himself as a dissident and revolts against the authoritarian regime under which they live.

The algorithms that serve targeted adverts in this way already exist today. Their intention is determined by big business and capitalises on society's manufactured need for material things, in order to feel contented - a shift we've observed since the dawn of commercialisation, and most recently, the advent of e-commerce. With screen time soaring, digital advertising accounts for 64.4% of all advertising in the US according to WSJ. Figures from App Annie also suggest: "People are spending an average of 4.8 hours a day on their mobile phones".

Before embarking on another digital ad campaign, businesses ought to consider the implication of accrued debt for users - particularly while inflation and the cost of living remain high. They also ought to reevaluate the exchange. Data is fast becoming the most valuable commodity, yet its origin - the customer - is often forgotten about. Down the line, this could be fatal for a brand, compromising loyalty and discouraging lifetime custom.

A word of advice:

Cost of content

In 15 Million Merits, Bing has the option of skipping adverts in exchange for hard-earned merits. This led us to consider paywalls, where they appear, and the content value exchange. Until recently, content has been virtually "free", so why and how might you implement a paywall? First off, content creation is a bonafide profession and how an increasing number of us earn a living. ‘Content’ is a broad umbrella term too, encompassing everything from DuoLingo to YouTube and OnlyFans.

Paywall alternatives

Then there's news and the long-held debate over its monetisation that is often colored by social expectations and the fundamental yet somewhat imagined right to an awareness of what's going on in the world. A recent survey found that 6 out of every 10 regular news readers have never subscribed to a news service, either online or in print, nor intend to in the future. A further 8% say they used to subscribe to a news service but no longer do.

Committing to a 6, 3, or even 1-month subscription can be a huge financial barrier for some so you'll want to be careful not to price people out, and alienate them - hence the ongoing should we pay for sometime-partisan-news debate. An alternative to this could be a Klarna-style payment system, one that allows consumers to spread the cost of their purchases. Others might include a pay-as-you-go model or a donations portal.

But what's to say a paywall is the answer? We recommend surveys to provide a litmus test and gauge what your customers want e.g. a limited number of free articles per day/week or subscription trials so users can try before they buy.

Raising engagement

Elements of gamification are explored within the episode too, as a means of driving engagement. Bing and Abi, are by default entered into a league and either promoted or demoted through the ranks, according to performance.

We see league tables out in the wild. Apps such as Strava and DuoLingo reward users for consistent and outstanding performance, but there’s often little consideration for those who aren’t intent on or simply can’t reach seemingly "universal" targets - as one of many different users. Casual or novice users of an app like DuoLingo, for example, may find competitive league tables or notifications that promote continued use a source of anxiety and conversely feel demotivated when unable to spend time on the app. 

A study from ResearchGate on the relationship between a users’ personality type and league tables, suggests that designers should focus on: “supporting constructive competitions among a small circle of close friends” and that: “leaderboards in social networking contexts should be intentionally designed to serve the purpose of facilitating communication."

It’s important that gamification techniques serve different user types, otherwise, brands will discourage significant chunks of their user base. To begin with: give users the option to opt-out of push notifications and for those who would appreciate some words of encouragement, identify how they'd like to be interacted with and what they respond well to. Perhaps a marathon runner would prefer a sharper tone than someone who’s heading back to the gym after some time out. 

Fostering a sense of community is useful. Uniting people around a common cause or objective provides comradery and when operating as part of a team, some feel more inclined to keep going and avoid letting others down. For more competitive users, don't remove leaderboards altogether. Work with these people to understand what they want out of your app and how they're motivated by competition. As such, you'll need to ensure your experience is flexible and ready to respond to different user needs.

Season 3, Episode 1: Nosedive

In Nosedive, we meet Lacey who lives in a utopian suburb defined by social rankings. She is scored as she goes about her day, on the quality of her interactions with family, shopkeepers, colleagues and friends. Throughout the episode, Lacey's ranking plummets, until she assumes the role of renegade and regains her autonomy.

There are comparable elements of this technology in the real world today. Ratings are commonplace on social and e-commerce platforms in order to help users make informed decisions when searching for hotels, or weigh up the best noise-cancelling headphones on a budget. The question is; how do we ensure that reviews and ratings can be trusted and don’t negatively impact a brand or user?

A different kind of review

Paralinguistics such as body language, eye contact, and tone of voice could help to ensure reviews are genuine and not fabricated like so many we see online today. While not everyone will want to appear on camera, figures reveal that 88% of consumers trust video reviews just as much as personal recommendations.

To crack down on fraudsters like The Tinder Swindler, dating apps/sites Match and Tinder introduced video and audio features so that users could get a feel for a potential date before meeting. This enabled people to become acquainted on a more personal level, saving both parties time if it wasn't meant to be and helping users remain safe.

Applying verification 

Verification helps users identify the real accounts of public figures and brands, predominantly on social media. Though verified badges imply a degree of importance, authority, or subject matter expertise, anyone with a strong enough case and the right government-standard or business documentation can make a bid for their own blue tick.

This study found that "verified Instagram accounts have a 30% higher engagement rate" because "users have more trust in them." The user's inclination to trust verified accounts has been noted and adopted more broadly - with Tinder introducing the blue tick to provide even greater reassurance for app users. Though, one thing to consider is: if everyone's verified, how do we discern official accounts from fakes at scale? And another: does the blue tick become more diluted over time?

Before implementing any sort of verification measure, brands might first want to take a leaf out of Depop's book. The online marketplace recently introduced copy to manage inaccurate reviews - perhaps left in the heat of the moment. Before leaving a review, Depop reminds users that feedback is: "final and cannot be changed" and "to be friendly and fair." 

“Protecting” users

In November last year, YouTube made negative feedback private to the contributor. The dislike button remains but is no longer public-facing, protecting creators from harassment and dislike attacks — when users intentionally drive up the number of dislikes on a video. 

Removing like and dislike buttons on your platform could be viewed as a protective measure and an effective way of dealing with trolls, but denying users the truth can harm a user's creative and personal development. You don't want to host an echo chamber and exacerbate an already divided public either. 

Perhaps a middle ground is a more effective assessment of content - and that's across social media. Though a basic human right, freedom of speech is often abused online. Cracking down on trolls requires due diligence and a reconfiguration of algorithms, with oversight from actual human beings who can determine the nuance and context of a post. 

Season 2, Episode 1: Be Right Back

In Be Right Back, we follow Martha, a recent widow who purchases an android of her late husband Ash, to deal with the immense grief she experiences following his premature death. As the episode progresses, Martha begins to tire of the robot, who lacks the negative aspects of Ash’s personality that complete his whole character. The episode challenges our relationship with death and the extreme lengths we go to to avoid feelings of pain.

Thinking ahead

The use of AI in the episode is smart (on paper) and seems to initially remedy the longing Martha experiences. Part of dealing with death, however, is learning to accept that someone is no longer around and to eventually move on. Martha’s longing to spend more time with Ash, is exploited in this sense, and her underlying need to move on is denied. Despite its best intentions, technology has been used to simply "cure" the longing, in isolation, without questioning its origin or importance as part of the grieving process. 

That's why it's so important to approach design holistically and to listen intently to what your users are telling you. Remaining tactful in the years to follow is essential too. In 2018, for example, Bloom&Wild gave customers the option of opting in or out of Mother’s Day emails. More and more retailers, including Moonpig, have since followed suit and are beginning to offer their customers more choice over their personal preferences, to avoid unnecessary upset. 

Given the abundance of data at a brand’s disposal and the rise of personalisation, it’s only a matter of time before brands start to serve customers more thoughtfully. For example, GDPR-compliant AI could automate these preferences if data was shared more openly across devices. For this to happen, brands would also need to reevaluate the data value exchange and make it worthwhile e.g. share your data with us and we’ll deliver a personalised experience in keeping with your preferences. In this way we can potentially create more empathic and meaningful experiences as designers, with more data about how to determine when and what information is appropriate or harmful to users.

For example, Facebook memories can be triggering. The loss of a loved one or a painful breakup are things you may rather forget or remember differently. In recent years, however, Facebook has introduced digital memorialisation to remember those no longer with us. Accounts that opt-in to memorialisation can also allocate a legacy contact to manage the page, and request its removal.

It's with features like this, that we can ensure dignity in death and empower users toward the end of life, a point in time when they may otherwise have no control. It means that others can share memories, and pay their respects in accordance with the deceased wishes and without having to worry about anniversary posts.

Final thoughts

Black Mirror may well be fictional but its themes couldn't be more relevant to our daily lives, particularly as they become more reliant on and augmented by digital technologies. That’s why speaking to your users and understanding how experiences truly impact their day-to-day lives matters.

The potential of technology is limitless. As designers, whether in-house or agency-side, we must therefore tread with caution. Digital can change or damage lives - perhaps over longer time frames than we currently consider - so businesses have to think ahead to mitigate the consequences. Regular communication with users is a good start, as is monitoring key data points to understand their behaviours. Without this understanding, future iterations are going to fall short of the mark and you'll set a precedent for designing in the dark.

Finally, consider whether your solution is truly necessary - or is it tech for tech's sake? What impact might it have on the environment? More technology means more servers. Moreover, does the user or customer need (‘I need toothpaste by tomorrow’) supersede that of the human (‘I need a planet to live on’)? 

The world is changing, and the tech we use can quickly turn into a source of harm for people, communities, businesses, and the planet. 

Design responsibly. 

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