Let’s begin with a simple challenge; try reading to the end of this article without checking your phone. It sounds easy enough, but if your pocket should ‘ping’ while you are reading (or if you’re reading this on your smartphone and get a push notification), it might prove more difficult than you realise to resist the urge to check it.
You’re not alone. No matter how busy we are, if we receive an email telling us somebody has tagged us in a photo on Facebook, or mentioned us in a post on Twitter, we can’t help but click on the link straight away, even when we know that opening up a social network means the next 20 minutes are a write-off. After all, 23 minutes is how long it takes us to refocus after we are interrupted in the middle of a task. And these interruptions can also lead to bad habits in the long term, as we become increasingly conditioned to interrupt ourselves.
“We tend to blame ourselves for tech addiction,” says Co.Exist’s Adele Peters. “If we can’t help watching the next kitten video, or checking email 15 seconds after we last checked, it seems like a problem of willpower.” But it’s not just a matter of willpower; we are surrounded by distractions in our day to day lives, from shamelessly sensational clickbait to menial yet time-consuming ‘shadow tasks’.
The average American spends 11 hours each day staring at a screen, whether that be a smartphone, tablet or desktop. And it is pretty clear with the launch of new products like Facebook At Work that most tech companies want you to spend even more of your time with them. But what if it were possible to design a distraction-free day?
Enter Tristan Harris of the Time Well Spent movement. Harris likens the smartphone to a slot machine. How do slot machines make more money than the movie, theme park and baseball industries combined, when we play with such small currency? Sheer volume. And things like email, Facebook and Twitter are the same, says Harris, swallowing up our time in such tiny portions that we almost don’t notice how we are effectively frittering our lives away.
Living in the attention economy means between constantly torn. You are either distracted by the constant alerts on your phone, or you are experiencing FOMO. “We need to restore choice,” says Harris. And that can be achieved through design.
The current goal of chat apps, for instance, is to send messages quickly and easily, but Harris believes that the human design goal should be to foster communication and relationships of a higher quality. In fact, he thinks every tech business needs to reconsider its human design goal, rather than chasing easy revenue.
But that doesn’t just mean an ad-free mobile web, he says: “I think up until now the debate about advertising has been about, OK, I’ll pay, and then suddenly I don’t see any ads. That doesn’t feel like an interesting trade. If you think about what a person values, they don’t want to pay $5 or whatever just to not have rectangles show up on a page.”
Consumers don’t just resent ads because they’re intrusive; for the most part, it’s because they’re irrelevant. Designing a better mobile experience is all about developing new ways to add value, says Harris, and finding newer, more compelling metrics for your business, with the single most important criteria being your “net positive contribution to human life.”
Harris imagines social networks or dating services which measure success not in swipes or screen time, but in the deep personal connections made by their users. In the same way that supermarkets give premium shelf space to organic products, Harris envisions app stores which showcase services dedicated to providing a richer user experience. But, just like with organic food, consumers need to recognise the value first. “You need people to demand what’s good for them, because that’s what lets those companies do the right thing.”
So; rethink your business’s goals with human happiness as a key priority, and the customers will come running. It’s that simple.
Now, did you make it all the way to the bottom of this page without reaching for your phone?