Americans pick up their phones 47 times a day.

That’s more than the number of times they (physically) talk to another human and pick up a book combined.

Many of us are making a real, conscious effort to reduce or limit our phone usage. Personally, I’ve turned off just about every dinging, buzzing, or notifying feature Apple offers across devices. My Apple Watch doesn’t do anything but tell time and track my runs (no, Apple, I don’t need you telling me when to breathe).

Still. 47 times a day. That number goes up to 86 if you’re 18-24.

There is plenty of research dedicated to understanding screens’ effect on the human brain, but the results are mixed (so are expert opinions). Video games, social media, and streaming may be detrimental (or beneficial) to our brains. But one thing is for certain: we spend too much time on our devices – and the break in focus (from work to phone back to work) is the real issue here.

“Screens could have effects on the span of attention, especially if you are constantly switching from one thing to another, but it’s all a manner of how the device is used.” -Michael Posner, Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon

Teams that make mobile experiences keep retention and time on screen front of mind. Baked into the UX are ways to keep you engaged, tapping, scrolling, looking for more. This isn’t done out of malice – engagement metrics, simply put, are industry standard performance indicators. More time on screen, more comments, more taps, swipes, and pinches indicate higher rates of satisfaction (and, for some, more revenue).

Recently, Apple and Android introduced new features integrated into your phone’s operating system that are intended to limit your phone usage (coming Fall 2018). Across apps – 3rd party or otherwise – you can now analyze usage and receive reminders to, say, get off of Instagram (Millennials spend an average of 6 hours on Instagram every week). With the advent of integrated digital health features, designers and developers are now faced with a new challenge: find the sweet spot, and ensure just the right amount of engagement.  

Below we’ll explore these features in detail – where they came from and what they do for the consumer – and dive into the impacts on creators, marketers, and brands. But first, some background.


Why does Silicon Valley suddenly care?  

“Social media isn’t evil. There are neuroscientists in some of these companies, but for the most part I don’t think it was done maliciously. But advertising is the business model. And if advertising is the business model– our attention becomes the product. Two variables matter to the bottom line: the amount of users and the amount of time they spend on platform. And what gets measured gets optimized. So our phones have become slot machines. We scroll and scroll and scroll, and eventually we hit something that gives us a dopamine reward. It’s by design. Because slot machines make more money in the US than theme parks, baseball, and movies combined. Both Vegas and Silicon Valley know that our brains can be manipulated if presented with a certain set of choices. Obviously addictiveness isn’t the only feature of these platforms. They’ve empowered so many voices. I’d just love to live in a world where our most influential technology didn’t measure its success by the time it took from us.”

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Historically, the fine folks of Silicon Valley have taken advantage of design patterns that hold attention and deceive users. This is known in the biz as “dark UX.” These tactics were/are borderline diabolical, leading users to accidentally purchase unwanted items, unknowingly share personal information, and keep tapping and tapping and tapping and tapping and tapping…

Some, like ex-Facebook President Sean Parker will say it was pure evil; a misuse of power knowingly committed by Facebook puppeteers. Others, like Tristan Harris (former Google design ethicist), are attempting to pivot the rhetoric and the practice, advocating for “humane design.”

Be it celebrity finger-pointing, neurological research, or user demand, “digital wellbeing” became a buzzword in Silicon Valley, and industry giants were forced to find ways to limit the use of their own products.

“Facebook earlier this year changed how its News Feed operates to reduce users’ time spent on the site in favor of wellbeing. Instagram last month introduced its first time well spent feature, by informing users ‘you’re all caught up’ when they’ve viewed all the new posts.” –TechCrunch


Apple and Android just took a major step in the right direction.

Collectively, the two tech giants make up 99% of the smartphone market, accounting for roughly 230 million phones in the US. Some “dark” tactics to keep your attention were employed by native Apple/Android apps, others by 3rd parties. But this fall, things are (hopefully) going to change.

Android’s latest OS, Android P, is slated to drop in August. It features a central hub known simply as the “Dashboard” where you can track the number of notifications received, app usage, and even the daily total of unlocks (maybe once users see the number “45” they’ll pick up their phone a little less). Another feature called “Wind Down” shifts your screen to greyscale and automatically turns on do not disturb. You can also set “App Timers,” which impose daily usage limits.

Apple’s “Screen Time” is almost identical. Coming to iOS12 in September, “Screen Time” enables iPhone users to more easily hide or mute notifications, automatically disable notifications before bed, and track “Activity Reports,” which reports on – you guessed it – app usage, how often you pick up your device, and number of notifications received.

All in all, they’re the same. But their significance shouldn’t be overlooked. Both Apple and Google have taken smaller steps in the past that address digital wellbeing – night mode lighting, advanced notification settings, and the universally beloved “do not disturb” mode.

This is different for one reason: self awareness. “App Timers” and “Screen Time” do more than prevent excessive phone usage. They empower the user to become the responsible party. The onus is on you. Apple and Google will provide beautiful visualizations that underscore your excessive email, Snapchat, Tinder, and Netflix habits. But it’s on you and only you to set the limit.


But I’m a brand and/or marketer, not a consumer. What does this mean for me?

Almost 96% of teenagers have access to a smartphone, and 45% say they’re online “almost constantly.” On top of that, they are generally optimistic about tech and the role it plays in their lives.

As the next generation of consumers becomes of age, we need to stay vigilant. Designing tech for distraction is wrong. The same goes for marketing.

Voluminous ad campaigns designed to reach and retarget have their place in a marketing strategy. The same goes for native content, flashy display ads, and even click bait. But beware the rising Gen Z. They can spot these tactics from a mile away. And they expect better of brands.  

For your next digital campaign or online product, think of how you can provide utility, surprise and delight, support a worthwhile cause, or otherwise add value. Make users aware that your intention isn’t to suck up their time, but to put digital wellbeing first. From there, the brand loyalty, e-commerce sales, coupon downloads, and social engagement will follow. Guaranteed.


As always, let’s keep the conversation going.