User Experience at the End of Consumerism

Envisioning New Horizons

A critical look at UX design practice

A column by Silvia Podesta
January 8, 2024

Imagining a world without consumerism is a very difficult exercise. For a very long time, we’ve all been immersed in a socio-economic system that is geared toward maximizing the purchasing and ownership of goods. But imagining a future in which online shopping would be no more—at least not in the frantic, addictive form it has taken over the last decade—would be an interesting speculative experiment for a UX designer today.

However, after all, this might not be such a useless a stretch of the imagination as one might think. On Black Friday in November 2023, the French government launched a campaign to warn people off impulsive shopping to “save the planet and their finances.” [1] Plus, the ongoing climate-change debate is becoming rife with calls to rethink our consumer behaviors. So let’s suspend our rational judgment for a moment to envision a future that would be very different from what we know today. What could the digital landscape look like in a post-consumerist world? What could we take from such a vision to make today’s Web a better place?

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A Brief History of Digital Consumerism

Millennials and all antecedent generations can remember the time before mobile phones, when people’s shopping habits used to be very low key in comparison to today’s.

In the old days, the process of provisioning any type of item was almost entirely dependent on its availability at local resellers and on the shopper’s motivation to travel the distance to a particular store. The typical customer journey was definitely less seamless and relied more on physical touchpoints than today.

Online shopping is now approximately 40 years old. English inventor Michael Aldrich is credited with having come up with this game-changing idea in 1979. But it took some time for this medium to take hold and transform into the economic behemoth it is today. In the relentless evolution of online shopping, milestones include the Boston Computer Exchange (1982), the world’s first ecommerce company; then the launch of Amazon and eBay (1995), Alibaba (1999), and PayPal (1999). The advent of Google Ads (2000) marked a turning point in this history and paved the way for the established online-shopping culture that almost everyone partakes of today. At its peak, digital consumerism forged an indissoluble bond with the discipline of design. The need to hook consumers made the notions of immediacy, usability, and simplicity of use the defining traits of the new online-shopping experience, as epitomized in foundational UX design and marketing books such as Jaime Levy’s UX Strategy and Steve Krug’s Don’t Make Me Think.

The ecommerce user interface became the arena where companies could win or lose customers. Many companies recognized that the design of a great user experience is conducive to sales so increasingly sought to create them. This led to the polarization of the UX discipline around patterns and approaches that could support consumerist logic.

Now this very logic has shown a dark side: not only in terms of its environmental impacts, but also when it comes to people’s mental well-being, financial sustainability, and social justice. More and more voices are rising to urge that UX design live up to its vaunted goal of being a human-centered vocation and question the way in which it has transformed into a lucrative business.

In this column, I’ll discuss some commonplace design affordances that support digital consumerism today and propose alternative approaches that are better suited for an eventual post-consumerism era.

The Shopping Cart

A notorious symbol of our purchasing experiences, the online shopping cart evokes the essential traits of online consumerism. The checkout experience on ecommerce sites is also an instance of behavioral design in action. Studies have suggested that the clever design of this shopping-cart component could minimize the physical pain that is associated with the experience of paying, thus making it less likely for users to question their purchasing decisions. [2]

A post-consumerist take on the shopping cart might include on-page reminders to consider both the financial and environmental impacts of our personal expenditures. The features of an ecommerce site could connect users’ shopping experience to their virtual wallet, signaling when a particular purchase might risk hindering their ability to cover other, more urgent expenses such as energy bills, food, and healthcare.

We can also imagine environmentally conscious carts that can suggest the most eco-friendly products to users, right on the cusp of their clicking the Buy Now button. A good proxy for this idea could be an app such as Think Dirty, which helps shoppers choose cleaner cosmetics products and reduce their ecological footprint in the process. A more radical step could involve providing such guidance right when a customer is about to convert by making a purchase. If this sounds like something extremely counterintuitive from a marketing perspective, let’s not forget that companies often adopt a similar mechanism—interrupting the checkout process to encourage additional sales or remind users that, if they spend just a little more, they’ll become eligible for free delivery.

The key could be rethinking this mechanism to encourage users to buy better alternatives, while sustaining sales at the same time, by nudging consumers toward purchasing premium-priced products or by favoring remunerative cross-selling.

Scarcity Mechanisms

Scarcity is perhaps the most pervasive and powerful way of impelling users to make a purchase that is at marketers’ disposal. Such scarcity mechanisms include messages, promotional banners, and the prompts with which we’re all familiar—such as the room-counter on the site, which appears in red, as you can see in Figure 1.

Figure 1—Scarcity alerts on
Scarcity alerts on

In a post-consumerist world, we might see fewer of these gimmicks or use them in different ways. For instance, they might be activated only on items that a shopper has consciously put in a wishlist. The simple act of choosing favorite items and putting them in a list to monitor their price over time can prompt users to think about what products they really want or need. This, in turn, discourages impulse-buying or users making purchases just because they encounter an unmissable bargain rather than because they have a genuine interest in or need for a product.

The Social Newsfeed

Social-media platforms such Instagram have grown into full-fledged engines of consumerism thanks to the phenomenal persuasive power that comes from constant exposure, compelling visual media, and addictive social-proof mechanisms.

Entire economies center around the advertising force of the newsfeed, so the implications of getting rid of it would be huge and complex. A rethink of this medium is already taking shape, in the form of functions that make users aware of their device screen time and encourage users to switch off and use their time more wisely. Estimates suggest that giving up at least three ten-minute social-media checks a day would let you make time to read as many as 30 more books in a year. [3]

Were the consumerist culture—and the social-media economy—to be radically upended, we would possibly see a very different structure for the social-media page. Perhaps we would end up interacting with pages whose structure is more reminiscent of online newspapers, with a bigger emphasis on content and a less intrusive approach to advertising.


It is very hard to predict what the future has in store for us. However, far from being useless, this speculative exercise of envisioning a reality that is different from the one we inhabit today could lead to thought-provoking questions. It could help us zoom in on what is not really working well today so we can make it better for tomorrow.

As UX designers, we are in a position to question why things are the way they are and advocate for a human-centered perspective. As our consumerist culture keeps shifting and changing, it is reasonable to forecast that human adaptations to the way we live and purchase products could take place at some point. By analyzing today’s affordances to consumerism, we can imagine and weigh the merits of various opportunities for future, more conscious innovation. 


[1] Lou Newton. “France Warns People Off Black Friday Clothes Deals.” BBC News, November 24, 2023. Retrieved December 4, 2023.

[2] Ofer Zellermayer. “The Pain of Paying.” (PDF) Pittsburgh: Department of Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, January 1996.

[3] Jacek Staszak, Mateusz Mucha,and Joanna MichaƂowska. “Social Media Time Alternatives Calculator.” Omni Calculator, last updated August 28, 2023, Retrieved December 4, 2023.

Innovation Designer at IBM

Copenhagen, Denmark

Silvia PodestaAs a strategic designer and UX specialist at IBM, Silvia helps enterprises pursue human-centered innovation by leveraging new technologis and creating compelling user experiences. Silvia facilitates research, synthesizes product insights, and designs minimum-viable products (MVPs) that capture the potential of our technologies in addressing both user and business needs. Silvia is a passionate, independent UX researcher who focuses on the topics of digital humanism, change management, and service design.  Read More

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