Over 2.5 billion people around the world own a smartphone. That number represents a huge amount of potential revenue for the companies that design smartphone apps, as more time spent on a particular app = more money for the developer.
Tristan Harris is a former designer at Google, who now runs the non-profit organisation Time Well Spent along with a group of former tech company employees. The organisation aims to highlight the way technology is designed to hijacks user’s attention, and pushes for more accountability to be placed on tech companies.
In the video below from Vox, Harris explains the intentional design choices and psychological tricks that make your phone so hard to put down – and how to combat these effects once you are aware of them.
1. Turn off (most of) your notifications
Or more accurately, turn off all non-human notifications. When a real life human being wants to contact you, you will most likely receive a phone call, a text message or a messenger message. As humans we crave social interaction, so these types of notifications make us feel good.
Apps try to piggyback off this feeling by randomly popping up with non-human notifications – a friend is interested in a nearby event in Facebook, a game is giving you a daily reward, somebody just checked in somewhere. These notifications artificially simulate the buzz we feel when a person wants to connect with us. This in turn makes us spend more time on the app, which means more advertising revenue for the company.
The interesting thing about notifications is that they are unpredictable. Think about when your phone buzzes in your pocket – sometimes it might be something good – like a message from a friend – sometimes it might be something uninteresting – like a mundane email. This element of randomness keeps us hooked, much in the same was as gambling does.
Phones use other tricks borrowed from the gambling industry too, such as the ‘pull to refresh’ feature which mimics pulling the lever on a real life slot machine.
Be sure to turn off an non-crucial notifications.
2. Switch to greyscale
Another casino-inspired piece of design is the use of colour. Our eyes are naturally drawn to bright, warm colours (you may have noticed companies like Instagram have updated their app icons to reflect this). It’s also the reason why many notification symbols on your phone use the colour red.
You can usually adjust the colour scheme of your phone in its accessibility settings. It’s surprising how much less compelling your phone is after you make this simple change.
3. Choose your homescreen apps carefully
Tristan Harris recommends limiting the apps on your homescreen to everyday tools that help you live your life – things like your calendar and maps. He advises removing apps that will suck you into what he calls the “bottomless vortex of stuff”.
Have you ever noticed that in the Facebook app for example , you can never reach the ‘bottom’ of the screen? No matter how much you scroll, the app will keep loading more content. The same principle is used by Youtube, which will continuously cue up and auto-play a never ending stream of videos.
It turns out that we humans are not good at knowing when we’ve had enough. A 2005 study showed that when participants ate soup from a self-refilling bowl, they ate 73% more than those who ate from a normal bowl that was refilled by servers. Many apps are intentionally designed to go on forever without a clear endpoint. Keep these apps off your homescreen to avoid getting pulled in.
Most of us vastly underestimate how much time we spend staring at our phones. Use these tips to take back some control.