An investigative exploration of
human interactions with mobile technology.
Monogamy is out. The modern marriage is no longer solely between two humans. Before we even dream of our significant other, most of us have already experienced a long and turbulent relationship with our smartphones who stay with us for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. “Age of Information” doesn’t fully describe the bizarre new world we live in, where any and all recorded information is at the tips of our fingers and two-thousand miles between partners means you can still see bae’s cute face in real time whenever you want. These wild changes echo far into our lives and psyches, stirring up multitudes of weirdness that needs to be unraveled. Through deep analysis of interactions, considering ideas as basic as awareness and willpower, we can do a little couple therapy on the complicated new relationship between smartphone and human.
When I was about seven years old, I had a dream that I was sitting in an empty high school classroom. I was playing with this magical thing that Little-Me didn’t even have a name for. It was a mix of a TV, a computer, and a Game Boy, all wrapped into one pocket sized piece of plastic. I spent a couple hours playing with this amazing little device, and then I woke up. Little-Me snuggled into her Pokemon comforter and thought, That was the coolest ever. Too bad there’s never in a million years going to be anything so awesome. Flash-forward fifteen years, Big-Me just pulled an iPhone out of her apron pocket, verbally asked it to convert ounces to cups, checked the next ingredient in the cake recipe, and then turned her audiobook back on. Forty minutes later, she used the same device to take a 8 megapixel photo of her cake and post it on the internet, where thirty-seven of her friends and acquaintances let her know that they thought it looked damn good. Little-Me would have been so, so pleased.
In fact, multiple times a day, every day, I get hit with this brick of a realization of how absolutely pleased I am and how unfathomably amazing technology has become in such a short period of time. To be able to watch an entire season of Breaking Bad, while having five different conversations fully in photographs, while questing for treasure and glory alongside millions of strangers in remote parts of the world, all at the same time, from the comfort of local public transportation during the daily commute to work, is… is there even a word for it? How can we come to grips with this insane magical shit that has become an affordable norm to a good chunk of the world? It has certainly changed the way we act and interact, but in what ways, and is it a good thing? Is it controlling us like our sci-fi robot overlords, or does it serve us obediently and grant us power? This kind of high-power mobile technology is brand new in the grand scheme of things, and it’s still evolving faster than anyone can comfortably keep up with. A whole slew of entirely new human-interface interactions have become normal as our devices become more powerful and intelligent. These interactions are only in the works of being thoroughly explored and understood, but we can get to the root of this new terrain by examining the core functions at work in any interaction; awareness, purpose, and willpower.
When Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone in 2007, a new age of portable computers was kicked off with fireworks. The iPhone was by no means the first touchscreen smartphone, not even the second touchscreen smartphone, but it was the first time 1 a smartphone existed outside of the world of business and productivity and became accessible and attractive to the average consumer. The infinitely malleable touchscreen and host of physical sensors allowed the iPhone’s uses to skyrocket, no longer bound by a fixed formation of buttons and keys like its predecessors. Google had been developing Android, their open source mobile operating system, and the iPhone’s release spurred them on to produce the cutting edge T-Mobile G1. Together as rivals, Google and Apple pushed the smartphone industry into a future of unified devices with millions of uses. With more powerful processors and more flexible screens, developers were given dramatically more freedom, able to build their interfaces as aggressive or subtle as they could craft for whatever uses they could imagine. The flexibility of web and computer app design was suddenly available to mobile application design as well. There was a big difference, though. Desktop computers were absolutely incredible processing machines that gave their user’s superhuman abilities, but smartphones were another territory. These were computers that traveled with us, that we could have access to at any given moment of our days, that we programmed as our personal assistants, that communicated with us even when we weren’t touching them. While their processing power and multitasking ability certainly paled compared to their desktop counterparts, nothing, next to living breathing organic organisms, could surpass their companionship.
The iPhone was a smooth collaboration of the successes of its ancestors; the arrays of useful apps and touchscreen concepts of PDAs and the connectivity and portability of cellphones, plus one trait that elevated the industry beyond previous smartphones. The interface,2 both physical and digital, was astoundingly relatable to humans in a way that previous smartphones were not. This was no longer just a tool for the savvy businessperson or tech connoisseur, this was an item that anyone could use and adore. The iPhone’s design was a breath of fresh air, clean metal and class with a geometric simplicity that shone in a market full of bulky plastic phones. For the average user, this visually simplified design was extremely approachable. With only two primary buttons on the entire phone, who couldn’t use it? The home screen followed suit, with a colorful grid of icons promising that even grandpa will be able to find the SMS inbox. And of course, that incredibly straightforward design was made possible by the iPhone’s impressive touchscreen, which was truly the crown of the device’s UI.
Touchscreen smartphones before the iPhone all utilized styluses with screens that were pressure sensitive, and smartphones that didn’t have touchscreens relied on arrow keys to navigate the menus. By introducing an intentionally finger-operated touchscreen, Apple brought the user right into the interface. In the same way that I could slide a piece of paper around my desk, I could use my finger to slide web pages around my screen. The physics were lifelike and immersive. The interface became pliable and relatable, existing in a plane of physicality much closer to humans than anything previous. At it’s release, the iPhone was pure future, and soon after other companies adopted the full touchscreen experience, too.
Right now, I know exactly one person under fifty who doesn’t own a smartphone. (Ironically, she’s a mobile app designer, but that’s beside the point.) I was shocked when I found out she had a normal cellphone, but she quickly reassured me that she did own a tablet and that she could add me on Snapchat. Aside from her, I haven’t even seen a physical keyboard on a phone since high school. The touchscreen smartphone infiltrated society more thoroughly and quickly than almost anything in history.
A smartphones is essentially a block of metal and glass with a two-dimensional screen interface. Crafty designers managed to take a thing that couldn’t have less in common with a human, and turn it into everybody's new best friend. The touchscreen is the magic portal that brings the 2D phone world into our dimension. The smooth glass and instantaneous reactions allow the interface to react like a piece of three-dimensional reality. The realistic gestures, like dragging, pinching, and scrolling, treat the screen more like a flat physical object instead of pixels locked behind a screen. Far more convincing than a computer mouse or a stylus, the touchscreen lets users interact with their phones with their fingers, just like any other useful object. Current smartphones also have an ever-increasing host of sensors that give the phone an awareness of its surroundings. The light sensor allows for intelligent reactions to light levels, so the phone can keep its screen at optimal brightness or sense when to turn off the display during a call if the user has their face against the screen. The accelerometer gives the user another natural way to give information to their phone and lets the phone react to speed and orientation in realistic ways. The location sensor lets the phone do some of the work, providing location relevant content without any assistance from the user. Designers make use of these sensors in a huge variety of ways that allow the phone to seem aware, less of an inert block of metal and more like a conscious being.
The newest breakthrough in smartphone senses is voice recognition and response. Although it isn’t perfectly convincing just yet, "intelligent assistants" like Siri and Cortana offer the most natural way to interact with our phones, using spoken language. In almost the same way that we talk to our friends, we can now talk to our smartphones. Some features give the illusion that the interface exists on the same physical plane as the other objects humanity relies on, and others allow the phone to appear aware of its surroundings like a conscious member of the animal kingdom, but Siri and Cortana make our phones respond to us like a member of humanity itself.
If our trusted canine pals weren't such highly skilled hunters, dogs would have never been domesticated to be the loving companions they are today. In just the same way, the incredible relatability of smartphones only becomes a game-changer when combined with the unprecedented practical uses of the device. As long as our phones have service, we have constant connection, perpetually in touch with friends and acquaintances via phone calls, texting, wifi based apps like Facebook Messenger and Viber, as well as the broader connections of social media available with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the rest of the gang. Users are also plugged into news and current events with apps like Flipboard, Inside, and Feedly, plus the multitudes of news sources with their own excellent apps. Society has been changed dramatically by this continuous connection, but individuals have been changed most by the perpetual access that smartphones give us to the vast database of human knowledge that is the Internet. The portable internet has been so momentous that it’s actually changed the way our minds works. We have become so different and so reliant on this, that smartphone users have rightly been called cyborgs 3. The world has been altered by this relationship in too many ways to count (most of them for the better) but it’s also added complications to our lives in ways that have yet to be fully addressed.
Smartphones have generated massive change in how humans communicate and think in a tiny amount of time. With the sheer amount of newness, its only natural that there are a lot of kinks that still need to be worked out. Smartphones do a lot of inconvenient things that we don’t like, and as designers, we can’t afford to settle for just okay. Users excuse issues as flaws that are part of the nature of the device, but smartphones are designed objects, and that means their natures are what we make them to be. The hammer is a highly refined tool that has been in use for thousands of years, and if a hammer had the interface issues that a smartphone has, no one would give a second thought to throwing it out the window. Hammers are beautiful, though, with handles shaped ergonomically for gripping, a double-ended head perfect for both installing nails and removing them with minimized effort, and just the right length of handle to give the user a more powerful swing. Even the mighty hammer, though, was once a humble rock used to hit things. And of course like the hammer, each iteration of smartphones gets a step closer to that perfectly refined tool designed exactly for the user. But we’ve still got a ways to go.
The ideal user is always aware of their phone, whether they’re actively using it or not. The constant awareness is like a buzz in the back of the head. It’s subtle and constant distraction, sucking on our attention spans in a way that is not always unpleasant. In normal use, our phones talk to us through their screen and when they’re pocketed or put away in a bag, they communicate through notifications. Both of these systems fulfill their purposes, but have some key flaws. The screen interface is usually comprised of whatever app is currently in use, which puts a lot of weight on the app designers. Unfortunately, as a lamentable side effect of capitalism, app designs don’t always have the user’s best interest in mind. App developers need to make money, so there is almost always an emphasis on keeping the user’s attention within apps and highlighting advertisement, whether or not it’s actually beneficial to the user. These ulterior motives within the interfaces take a toll on users, stretching our attention in too many directions and cluttering up our heads. Smartphone interfaces often become like undeserving attention magnets, keeping us captive far beyond what’s useful to us.
When not directly in use, smartphones keep us up to date through the notification system. Making the phone beep and vibrate at the user seems like an obvious method of communication between human and machine, but numerous studies have shown that cellphone notifications cause dangerous levels of distraction,4 and dozens more show that they cause undue stress 5 for users. With light examination, its not hard to see why. In essence, the notification system takes in relatively unfiltered events and information and alerts at the user the instant something happens. The only methods of modification are turning off all notifications for specific apps, or turning off all notifications entirely. If I had a personal secretary that shouted at me all the time or not at all, I think I’d be pretty on edge about it also. Actually, wait, I do have that, and I am. Fascinating.
As our own little personal assistants, smartphones are with us so often that seemingly small issues like this have a chance to really build up and cause some damage. This area of technology is exploding at a wild rate, and if the wearable tech trends continue, we could be seeing smartphone implants in the near future. Smartphones have decidedly carved a place in society, and its clear that they aren’t going away anytime in the next ever. If they are to continue their right-hand role in our lives, designers are going to need to continue to step up and create devices that help not just in communication, productivity, and their investor’s wallets, but also in our emotional wellbeing. The mythic road to the perfect interface is twisting and filled with venture capitalists, but the dream of the perfectly customizable phone that lets us rest easy is worth the battle.
Some months ago, while driving in my car, I had a two hour conversation with my friend Mallory. We were listening to an episode of the TED Radio Hour 6 featuring a researcher who was very sure that mobile technology was destroying humanity from the inside out, and we started talking about where she was wrong and where she was right. We compared my smartphone use, which has gotten pretty abusive over the past few months, and Mallory’s use, which is healthy and productive. We figured that the main difference came down to why we were using our phones. She uses hers almost solely for communication, including texting, facebook messaging, and social media. She’s in 5+ group chats and always has someone saying something to her. She has problems with her notifications in that she literally ignores the ones that aren’t messages and she ends up missing important emails and snapchats alike. She never stresses about her phone, never over-checks it, and isn’t compulsive with its use.
I, on the other hand, have gotten to the point where I check my notifications first thing when I wake up in the morning (having my alarm clock on my phone doesn’t help) and I often find myself absentmindedly flicking through apps, opening and closing them. I’m distracted and twitchy and I hate everything about it. I do not use my phone for communication to the degree Mallory does, so for most of the day I have my phone in my pocket or on the desk and I have nothing to expect from it. I don’t play games on it, I have social media that I’m not particularly active on, and I have calendar and organization apps which I only use when I need them. I do not have any purpose for my phone that warrants it being constantly in my radar. And so, what has happened, is that with my lack of purpose has weakened my will over my phone, my phone’s will has taken hold over me. Its single button tells me to turn it on, so I do. Its sliding unlock-bar tells me to open it, and so I do. My colorful assortment of apps says “click me!” and I do! All the time, I’m absent-mindedly obeying the interface of my phone, letting it pull me in useless circles.
After this conversation, I spent a lot of time thinking about the roles of purpose and willpower in interactions. To help myself fully understand where the problems between my phone and me had started, I decided to dissect the whole mess, breaking it down to bite-sized blocks. Not only is this helpful for my understanding as a smartphone user, but as designer, I can also take these pieces and put them towards more user-centric phone design.
In order to parse it out, I’ve broken down the interaction to its most basic components. At their root, all interactions consist of one being’s awareness intersecting with the will of another observable being. Interactions can be completely different depending from who’s perspective it is being examined by, so I’ll clarify things by referring to the first Being involved as the Interacted and and the second Being as the Interactioner.
The first of the two beings, or the Interacted, must be capable of awareness. (Any being capable of awareness will be referred to as a Conscious Source.) Awareness doesn’t just describe the detailed thought processes of humans, though, it also covers any being that can observe the world outside of itself. A dog smelling food, a mosquito evading a fly-swatter, a plant bending toward the light. In terms of interactions, each of these creatures are conscious sources. The second being in an interaction, the Interactioner, can also be a Conscious Source, but more often than not, it is a being that is not aware of it’s surroundings, which I will refer to as an Inert Source. This could be anything from a frying pan to a desk lamp to a mountain to an open window.
An interaction can take place as long as one being is conscious, so there can never be an interaction between two inert sources. In the case of an interaction between one conscious source and one inert source, the inert source is always the Interactioner and the conscious source is always the Interacted. In the case of an interaction between two conscious sources, both sources become both the Interacted and the Interactioner in two separate and simultaneous interactions.
Every interaction can be examined in terms of Purpose and Willpower, which respectively determine the intent and power of the interaction. Anything that is able to be perceived has both Purpose and Willpower, but they are reflected only when the Source is observed, and vary depending on who or what is observing it.
Every time someone observes a source, they interpret it in their own completely unique way. For example, an adult human might observe a spoon and see it as a tool for eating soup, while a child might observe a spoon and see it as a musical instrument for hitting pots with. Both of these people are observing the same source, but their personal differences cause them to assign different purposes to it. Each of these purposes applied to the source are all equally valid.
The second important aspect in determining the outcome of an interaction is Willpower, or the strength behind its Purpose. For example, imagine two different people encountering a view of a beautiful mountain. Person A encounters the mountain while they are running late for an important appointment. They observe the mountain and assign to it the Purpose: “I should stop and look at this beautiful sight.” Person A also observes their own feelings about the appointment they are late for, and assigns the Purpose: “I am stressed out and need to hurry up.” The Willpower of the mountain view is not as strong as the Willpower of their own feelings, so Person A hurries on their way without stopping to look at the mountain.
Meanwhile, Person B encounters the mountain during their lunch break from work, just after eating a tasty meal. They observe the mountain and assign the Purpose: “I should stop and watch the clouds pass by the peak of the mountain.” Person B also observes their own feelings and assigns the Purpose: “I should return to work.” In this case, the Willpower of the mountain view is much stronger than the Willpower of their own feelings, so Person B sits down on a bench and gazes at the mountain.
Conscious Sources that are self-aware, like humans, are able to alter their Willpower in response to different situations, which gives them Flexible Will. Inert Sources, however, have Static Wills, which means they cannot change unless an outside effect changes the Source itself. A cat, in response to a threat, can arch its back and hiss, expressing a strong flexible will to be left alone. If a threatening cat approaches a porcelain vase, the vase can do nothing in response. Its static will can only change if, for instance, the cat knocks it off the table and changes its form to many pieces of shattered pottery.
Smartphones are Inert Sources that have been Designed. This means that the observable interface has been tweaked and adjusted to ensure that a target audience of Conscious Sources that observe it all assign very similar purposes to it. Icon design is a perfect example of this. For an icon to be effective, it has to be universally understood. In the case of weather icons, this is achieved by creating minimal illustrations that describe different weather conditions that can all be easily understood by humans that have prior experiences of weather.
In many cases, a Designed object will have increased Willpower as a result of this refining process. In smartphone interfaces, this effect is desired because it can assist the human in its correct usage. To unlock an iPhone the user has to swipe their finger to the right on the lock screen. To assist in this, the interface designer has added text instructions stating “slide to unlock” next to an arrow pointing right, all of which has an animated shine effect going from left to right. All of this put together gives the iPhone lock screen extremely strong Willpower with a Designed Purpose that says “Unlock me!”
This is highly effective in helping users learn how to use a device, but it’s dependent on the user actively working with it. The smartphone’s Willpower is strong enough that it can easily overpower a careless user. It can drag them along, pushing them to do what the interface wants if they aren’t thinking about their own purposes in using the device. The phone wants to be turned on, the screen wants to be unlocked, the colorful app icons want to be tapped. Without the user actively giving direction, they are pushed by the phone’s strong Willpower. The problem lies in the fact that the interface is ultimately an Inert Source that cannot change. It’s limited to the Purpose that the designer programmed it to have, with no ability to adapt. It’s designed to hold our attention indefinitely, and if we let it, it will continue to do so whether or not we are actually using it to do anything. When the user allows the themselves to be controlled by this Inert Source, they find themselves stuck in a circular pattern of opening and closing apps that can captivate the user for hours, as I have accidentally found myself on many occasions.
The sticky interface of the smartphone leaks into the rest of our lives by means of the notification system. It is the primary method of communication between smartphone and human while not in direct use, so it’s necessary for it to be somewhat intrusive. There is a problem, however, because the Inert Source of the smartphone is unable to differentiate important and relevant notifications from the riff raff. It delivers vital voicemails and Candy Crush invites with equal gusto without taking into account if you are eating dinner or in a meeting. Each buzz and ding is a mystery until we pull out the phone and look at it.
By itself, the insistent intoning of notifications is enough to induce subtle stress, primarily because of how they break the user’s emersion with the rest of their world. According to self-help experts and Buddhist monks 7 alike, being present and grounded is one of the core aspects of living a happy life. It’s a value that is somewhat discounted in the West, but there is no contest that activities rich in present-tude are some of the most relaxing and revitalizing. Yoga, jogging, and meditation all have proven effects of calming the mind, improving concentration, and relaxing the body. This is because these activities all focus the user acutely on their body in the present moment, quieting anxieties about the future and regrets of the past. An environment that lets a person focus on Right Now is good for health and happiness. Smartphone notifications rudely jolt us out of this happy flow. Even right now, as I write this, I am regularly interrupted by my phone and lose my train of thought, distracted by things that simply aren’t relevant or happening to me at this moment.
The problem is compounded because, in the same way that kids love to eat way too much chocolate and make themselves sick, I enjoy it. Every time I get a notification, I get a tiny dopamine rush because someone is paying attention to me. Humans are gluttons for attention, and as much as we hate to admit it, it’s true in some degree for every one of us. We love recognition, we love “likes” on our facebook photos, we love comments on our posts. And like Pavlov’s dogs, smartphone users associate that vibration in your pocket to this kind of validation. On the other hand, our phones give us loads of junk notifications as well as notifications that are downright unpleasant. Plenty of apps will send useless notifications in a capitalist effort to get the user interacting with the app. Other apps that we love will sometimes simply send way too many notifications about the same thing (like 87 individual likes on an Instagram post). And then, there’s the dreaded flood of work emails that are sometimes even fear-inducing to receive. There are limited methods smartphones use to differentiate notifications, like specific tones and vibration patterns for different apps, but for the most part, it’s impossible to tell them apart until the user looks at their phone and visits the source of the notification.
This thoroughly uncertain source of interruption has become commonplace and accepted in the lives of smartphone users, and it isn’t fun but it can’t be ignored. Mobile communication has become so accepted and ingrained in society that not checking notifications is poor etiquette at best, and damaging to work and personal relationships at worst. The good news is, smartphone developers designed our phones to be this way, and that means we can design them to have better and more courteous interactions, as well.
The great thing about the universality of smartphone usage is that smartphone designers are also users. We get the valuable first hand experience of using the device every day and also have the trained skill set to understand problems and try and fix them. It’s been four years since I bought my first iPhone. That’s relatively recent compared to some people, but plenty of time for it to become a part of me and also annoy the shit out of me.
I’m in the habit of constant self-improvement. Anytime I find myself dissatisfied with a personal quality, I like to rip it apart, find out why I’m doing the thing, and get rid of it. My iPhone is a part of me in a very real way, and I’m just as critical of it as I am of the rest of myself. I am dissatisfied with this part of me so I’ve analyzed it to hell and back. And of course, every bit of analysis is valuable only when put into practice, so that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’ve created a series of case studies that highlight specific issues in smartphone design with proposed methods for improving them.
I think it’s safe to say, without citing sources, that people are all really different. Smartphone users lead drastically varied lifestyles. We’re farmers and nine-to-fivers and college students and night-shifters, party animals and body builders and parents and DIY’ers, but, our phones don’t see us like that. They see us as Users, one size fits all. Beyond the wild amount of choice involved in the apps we download to our phones, there are very few options in terms of customization. We can change our wallpapers and ringtones and basic layouts, but we have very little say when it comes to the parts of our phones that influence our life most of all.
The notification system is our phones’ way of communicating with us when we’re not using it, and at present it is less than friendly. It is essential to the phone’s function, since it lets us know about incoming calls, time sensitive text messages, and important emails, but with the same degree of insistence, it also tells us about Facebook comments and tagged photos and how many times our post was retweeted and when its our turn to go in Words With Friends. These things are clearly less important, but our phones deliver them all without prejudice, whether or not we particularly care about them at that moment. It can be more than a little stressful to navigate this mostly unfiltered sea of treasure and junk. Our phones end up full of spontaneous notifications from unpredictable sources that might be delightful or disappointing at any given moment of the 24 hour day, no matter what we’re doing. The notification system doesn’t care if you are at a doctor appointment or in a classroom or giving birth to your first born child. If you accidentally forgot to set your phone to “do not disturb” mode, it’s going to tell you every bit of news it can get its grubby little hands on, in real time.
Notifoo is designed to address the spontaneity of the notification system, the most pronounced of its flaws. Very important notifications need to happen in real time, but a huge amount of social media and game notifications have no time sensitivity. With Notifoo, users are able to categorize the sources and types of notifications into a more customizable delivery system that removes much of the guesswork of receiving a notification on the user’s end. In this system, notifications from specifically selected apps and contacts would be delivered in real time, while all others would be stored in related lists that are scheduled to deliver chunks of notifications at convenient and expected times. No more will we find ourselves distracted by something we don’t care about in the midst of an important meeting or class or date. The notification system becomes flexible and customizable enough to fit the user’s life, not force the user to bend to their phone.
Notifoo has two main sections. The main part of interface consists of completely customizable Lists. Users are able to create different lists of apps and contacts organized by category (e.i. social media, games, work, etc). For each list, the user is able to set custom delivery times for every day of the week. Notifoo collects and stores all notifications from apps and contacts on these lists and delivers them in bulk at the allotted times. With this system, a user is able to schedule all notifications from social media, for example, to be held until their lunch break during the work week, and then have them delivered in real time on the weekends.
Notifoo’s second component is the Hot List, which houses vital apps and contacts whose notifications need to be delivered in real time. This might include calendar apps, reminder apps, and contacts for family members or coworkers. It is extremely easy to add and remove things from the Hot List in only a few taps, so users can adjust their settings as their needs change during the day. Upon installation, the Hot List is the default location for all notifications until organized into Lists, so that nothing accidentally gets lost.
Someday, I hope my phone knows me so well that I won’t have to tell it to shut up, because knowing and respecting the user is essential in an interface so close to every aspect of our lives. We need phones that will help us without imposing their own agenda, putting the user first every time. In the future, I’m sure we’ll have magical AI companions that can helpfully predict our every need, but in the mean time, giving the user the choice to educate their phone themself will help create more personalized and polite smartphones right now.
Every morning I turn off the alarm on my phone and promptly check all of the notifications I received while I was sleeping. The vast majority of the time, these notifications are not pressing in the least and do not deliver any information that would affect my morning routine. When I finish the list, I usually feel disappointed, not just in the lack of interesting or relevant messages, but in myself for insisting on making this my first task of the day instead of doing something legitimately pleasant and calming 8, like exercising, enjoying a cup of tea, or reading a bit of a good book.
I don’t do those things, though, because my phone is practically begging me to check my notifications, giving me multiple prompts through all different areas of the interface. The only way to avoid is to simply put the phone down, but even the lock screen is wrought with little hints saying “Open me! Check me!” The habit is especially difficult to break because of the complicated mix of feelings attached to notifications. There’s the negative feeling of social obligation to quickly answer messages and the positive excitement of Something Happening specifically to you. My phone has me really wanting to check them, but I don’t want to check them first thing in the A.M.
Inspired by my discontent, I conceived Good Morning as a way to break the interface flow that wants to play with my emotions every morning. The app syncs with the user’s alarm clock. When the alarm goes off, Good Morning pushes a notification with daily content selected especially for each user. Content is selected based on preferences that the user inputs at the initial app set-up, so each morning they receive a photograph, audio clip, or video with content that will relax them and put a positive spin on their morning. The app concept takes inspiration from Flipboard’s content customization system and Mailbox’s whimsical inbox clearing interface. It includes basic information like the date and weather, with an interface that encourages no further phone use once it’s been opened.
The app begins with a simple push notification featuring a photo or video preview. If the user slides the notification open, they’re brought to the app’s main interface, which consists of a single page and a settings menu. There they can look at the photo (tapping for fullscreen) or watch the video. It also includes the date and the weather, so the user doesn’t need to open any other apps for their basic morning routine. The interface asks nothing else of the user, and in fact disables outside notifications while it is open in the foreground. It offers no other content to the user, either, to limit its use and prevents it from becoming something that users feel the desire to actively check later on.
Setup and customization are quick and easy. When the user opens the app for the first time after downloading, they can tell it exactly what kind of content they enjoy and find relaxing. This can be changed at any time in the app settings, along with personal details and content preferences. There can also customize almost every part of the app, with the ability to change the widgets on the apps home screen (date, time, current weather, weather for the day, inspirational message, etc.), the message that appears with the notification, and the color scheme of the app.
Smartphone interfaces are usually designed to have strong wills that grip users and draw them in, but they can also be designed to let the user detach a little bit from their phone. Strength in an interface is excellent for helping users learn to use a device or keeping them involved, but sometimes, (first thing in the morning, for instance) we really just want a rest.
Way back, during my conversation with Mallory in the car, I realized how vital purpose and awareness are as a smartphone user. I was suffering in my relationship with my phone because I lacked these in myself. I would regularly take out my phone and use it with no purpose in mind and little awareness of my own lack of purpose. I let the phone’s willful interface pull me in circles, accomplishing nothing and becoming frustrated once I realized what I had been doing.
After that conversation I made a decision to be more aware, to ask myself “what am I doing?” every time I picked up my phone. Incredibly, my misuse went away almost entirely. I would still pick up my phone for no reason, but I’d say “why?” and put it down again. I became happier with myself and with my phone, more relaxed and more productive.
However, with all the stresses of life, simply being aware isn't nearly as easy as it sounds, and my phone needs a way to help pull some of the load. The Interrupter is designed to break the user's immersion from the phone’s interface. The app is programmed to detect the distinctive cyclical pattern of opening and closing apps, and supply a pop-up message that forces the user to become aware of their actions for just a moment. It’s an easily dismissible message that gently calls the user out on their passive action, and then supplies them with an alternate activity. The app chooses this activity by connecting to an array of existing services that consider the customized tastes of their users, like Yelp, Foursquare, Yummly, and Verb. Apps like these allow users to choose tags that fit their custom tastes. The Interrupter pulls information from these databases to find something fun that fit the user’s location, financial range, and preferences.
When The Interrupter is activated at home, the app will ask if the user would prefer to do something at home or go out. If a Home activity is chosen, the app will select an activity that matches the user’s preferences, like a new recipe to try or a DIY project to do. If the user chooses to go out, the app suggests a location within the user’s chosen distance and price range. If the first choice is not satisfactory, the user can always ask the app to generate a new activity.
When The Interrupter is activated while the user is away from their home, the app will first search for an activity at a location that matches the user’s preferences within walking range. If it can’t find any, it will search within the user’s chosen distance range for car or bus travel to something else that might peak the user’s interest. If something good comes up, the user can tap “Ok!” to get details on the item. Otherwise, the user can just as easily tap “cancel” at any time to end the dialogue.
Before my decision to start being more aware of my own smartphone use, I had a sense of panic when I was without my phone, not just because I was dependent on it’s communicative functions, but because on a low level I knew that it needed me possibly more than I needed it. Without me to give it purpose, my smartphone isn’t a smartphone. If I’m not interacting with it, it isn’t really existing, and I knew this. It’s will is so strong, and its design makes me able to relate to it so well, that I let it put its needs above my own. Since I started making an effort to be aware, I’ve learned that its okay if my phone stops being in my life for a little bit. It’s okay if it stops having purpose for a while if its purpose doesn’t align with mine. In spite of all appearances, a smartphone is an inert tool, and if I don’t need it, I don’t have to feel obligated to use it anyway.
A smartphone interface that gives the user an out is a courteous interface, and in this regard, smartphones of today are rather rude. The relationship between phones and humans is decidedly long-term, and its twisty tricky bits are still works in progress, but designers and users can work together by both making smartphones that actively put the user first, and being more aware on a personal level of the power our phones have over us. The future is uncertain but bright, but the one thing we can be sure of is that from now on, we each have a companion for life who isn’t going to leave us. The relationship takes work and it won’t get easier, but there’s no turning back now. Smartphones and humans are partners for life.