Here’s a familiar scenario: you check your phone. Although there are no new notifications, you still go to the home screen. You open one app or another, absentmindedly scrolling through it until you realize this isn’t what you’re meant to be doing right now. You put away your phone and continue working, or talking to the person in front of you, or whatever it was that should have been getting your attention at the moment. Is it time for digital detox? Maybe, but who can honestly afford being offline nowadays? Our relationship with technology has turned into a love-hate affair. We’re appreciative of the useful information and means of communication it places at our fingertips, but we’re also tired of being screen-hooked for the majority of the day. Question is – does the decision have to be so black and white? Do we really need to seclude in desolate, wifi-less mountaintops in order to regain some of our inner peace? There has to be a middle ground, and in fact, it looks like we’re heading in the right direction. In our attempts to curb our tech addiction, design seems to be playing a major role.

This May, Google unveiled their new ‘Digital Wellbeing’ initiative to be included in the upcoming Android update, Android P. Google’s Vice President, Sameer Samat, introduced the concept as a new, long-term company priority. The idea, he announced, is “to find the right balance with technology.” A month later, Apple came out with a new iOS 12 tool titled ‘Screen Time’, meant to empower users’ choice regarding their interactions with their iPhones. The two initiatives are not identical, but they do share a similar logic. In working towards a more balanced digital lifestyle, our new secret weapon might just be technology itself, as these tech mega brands seem to be telling us. Perhaps technology can be redesigned so that it’s not merely competing for our attention, but restores our choice in deciding how we want to spend our time.

You’ve got mail! Now, read it whenever

If you want your phone to become less of a distraction, redesign its notifications first. Notifications as we know them are designed to instill a sense of high urgency, and demand our immediate inspection. Even when we silence our phones, their pop-ups and large red dots continue to create a visual interference. Apple and Google have come up with new designs that manage to convey the same informative notice in a manner that’s slightly less demanding. Let’s take a closer look at their new solutions for nighttime phone usage. Apple’s Do Not Disturb Bedtime mode and Google’s Wind Down mode, are both meant to create an after-hours version of your phone that’s a lot less stimulating. This way, if you happen to check the time on your phone in the middle of the night, there won’t be anything on your screen to wake you back up. Both solutions achieve this through the use of color – either by blacking out the lock screen almost entirely (Apple) or by creating a grayscale version of your mobile (Google).

Grayscale iPhone
Setting your phone on grayscale mode makes it feel less stimulating

It’s interesting to note the impact that this Pleasantville-styled existence can have on the look and feel of our phones, and subsequently on our minds. This minor visual shift – a grayscale interface, or a blacked out lock screen – really does take away from the urgency of incoming messages or social likes. While the red dotted notification design might bring to mind top-priority matters such as an emergency red button or a red traffic light, the grayscale version of the same icon feels nothing more than optional. Checking up on notifications is just one of the many things that we could be doing with our time (which in this nighttime scenario, should be catching up on our sleep). 

From FOMO to JOMO: the joy of missing out

We’ve all gotten accustomed to a bit of FOMO in our lives. Whenever we don’t check our phones, there’s that uncomfortable feeling of missing out on something big. We might be screening our friend’s text that’s inviting us to grab a drink later, or failing to like their latest pic that’s hidden well in the depth of the not-so-intuitive Instagram algorithm. For this reason, Instagram has recently launched their new ‘You’re All Caught Up’ feature. This simple feature is a clear visual representation, stating that no new posts are waiting for you. With it, Instagram is basically telling us – fear not, you’re not missing out on anything new here. With a generous amount of white space that acts as a buffer, short copy and a friendly green check mark (gradient green, of course), the app provides you with the information you need, and lets you decide whether you want to scroll further or not.

A different solution for resisting the FOMO comes from setting personal rules for phone-free nights. Earlier this month, Michelle Ruiz published her own non-design related tip for doing this on Vogue. Michelle wrote that while far from Luddite, she’s starting to see the Internet as one of those friends that “you can only tolerate in small doses—toxic, stressful, annoying—slowly but surely staging a coup over your life.” Her advice is simple – purchase a physical, old-fashioned alarm clock (our personal favorites are the Alume Cube Clock and the Lexon Flip), and as a result sending your phone to charge for the night as far away from your bed stand as possible. Since she’s started doing this, Michelle writes, she regained the ability to spend a few moments with her own thoughts every morning, before diving head deep into another day of checking the inbox. And more importantly, leaving her phone in the kitchen for the night enabled her to revive her age-old habit of reading books (real, paper ones) in bed.

Instagram's You're All Caught Up. Digital wellness
Instagram’s new feature, You’re All Caught Up.

An ethical approach to design

There has been talk of the need to redesign our interfaces for quite some time. In fact, it’s a growing movement, led by Tristan Harris, former (and first-ever) design ethicist at Google. Tristan formed his Time Well Spent nonprofit back in 2013, which has turned into The Center for Humane Technology earlier this year. The Center for Humane Technology points to an alerting problem. “Technology is hijacking our minds and society,” their website states, but Tristan is certain that this can be reversed. It isn’t that tech companies maliciously plot to get us hooked to our screens, he claims in his 2017 Ted talk. On the contrary, developers truly do want to create meaningful tools that will make the world a better place. But we have to “redefine our goals”, Tristan says, with our top priority put simply is “what’s best for people.”

If you ask the Center for Humane Technology, the goal in design for technology today is doing things easily. Our apps, browsers and operating systems strive for us to get things done with the ease of just a click or a tap – and things really are becoming very easy for us. We quickly skim through a few restaurant reviews online and in the next open tab, we’re already making reservations for tomorrow’s dinner. But Tristan is set on changing the goal with which we design for the better. Let’s design for things to be done well, he says. Design can empower our values and restore our choice in how we spend our time, both online and off. Tristan gives the example of browsers that allow us to set daily time limits for different websites, right as we type in the web address. An idea not too different is currently introduced into Android P and iOS 12, that now enables users to set personal time limits for apps.

These new Android and iPhone updates, together with the new Instagram feature, all seem to be adding up. And whether a passing health trend or an earthshaking change in the way we consume technology, it’s too early to tell. But as designers, it might serve as a friendly reminder to stop and think about why we do the things we do, and how we can do them better. If we agree that the polished, beautiful pieces we create have the power to shape thought patterns and effect behavior, then maybe we need to acknowledge that with great design, comes great responsibility.