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The future of digital wellbeing tools 

The tech world is waking up to a new movement — digital wellbeing. Over the past few years, there has been an increasing amount of interest in unplugging from technology to balance with life. People have never been so desperate to escape technology (especially smartphones) through “digital detoxes” or “dumb phones”.


For my master thesis — titled “Designing digital products in the age of distraction.” I looked into the day to day design patterns that technologists and digital designers use to fight for our attention. The main basis was to create new concepts that allow us to have a much healthier relationship with our devices. Altogether, I came up with four concepts that I believe will be the next most important steps in the digital wellbeing space. More particularly, I believe that tech giants like Apple and Google will implement them on the future versions of their mobile operating systems. 

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Concept 1 — Detach 

The idea behind ‘Detach’ links back to the Light Phone. A lighter version of the mobile operating system that the user can switch to whenever they would want to unplug from their phone. Instead of buying a secondary device like the Light Phone, their existing device can temporarily turn into one. The Detach UI would purposely lack third-party apps, images and any visual distractions like colours or gradients. Mack McKelvey, the chief executive of the marketing firm SalientMG in Washington, D.C mentioned: “You don’t buy black-and-white cereal boxes, you buy the really stimulating colored one, and these apps have developed really cool tiles, cool shapes, cool colors, all designed to stimulate you, But there’s a vibrant world out there, and my phone shouldn’t be it”. The use of colourful buttons, placeholders (like ads) and UI elements stimulates our brain into opening apps and screens.

Thomas Z. Ramsoy, the chief executive of Neurons, a company based in Copenhagen focused on using eye-tracking and brain monitoring to track attentional, emotional and cognitive responses has mentioned “Color and shape, these are the icebreakers when it comes to grabbing people’s attention, and attention is the new currency,” he said. “Having an interface that grabs people’s attention without disturbing them in the wrong way, without consciously intruding in their space, that’s the fine line.” What going grayscale does, Mr. Ramsoy said, is reintroduce choice. Companies use colors to encourage subconscious decisions, Mr. Ramsoy said. (So that, for example, I may want to open email, but I’ll end up on Instagram, having seen its colorful button.) Making the phone gray eliminates that manipulation. Mr. Ramsoy said it reintroduces “controlled attention”. Although Apple has already implemented a grayscale display option under the Settings app, it is still an accessibility filter and not a UI shift to reduce distractions. With the concept, we take a step further by almost mimicking an e-ink display but making it suitable for modern displays. Apart from the visual aspect, the Detach UI is meant to spread ‘social antibodies’ among friends and family. In the book named “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life”, Nir Eyal (Author and Behavioural Engineer) discusses the idea of social antibodies. Although the term was originally coined by computer scientist and investor Paul Graham in 2010, Eyal suggested ways to create social antibodies and use them to avoid social smartphone distraction. In the book, Eyal compares digital devices with smoking:

“Unfortunately, distraction is contagious. When smokers get together, the first one to take out a pack sends a cue, and when others notice, they do the same. In a similar way, digital devices can prompt others’ behaviors. When one person takes out a phone at dinner, it acts as an external trigger. Soon, others are lost in their screens, at the expense of the conversation."

In 1965, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 42.4% of adult Americans smoked and the number is expected to go down to just 12% in 2020. Legal restrictions definitely played an important role in the sharp decline in smoking rates. But more importantly, laws do not prevent people from smoking in their own homes, and yet that custom changed even in the absence of regulation. According to Graham’s theory, people adopted social antibodies to defend themselves, similar to the way our bodies fight back against viruses that could harm us. The antidote for distraction in social situations would call for the development of new norms that make it taboo to check one’s phone when in the company of others.

Putting this idea in practice, we need to develop social systems that restrict or curb digital device usage at particular places or social sessions. The same way that we cannot smoke cigarettes at restaurants or cinemas. With Detach UI, the idea is to make it a norm using a lighter interface that blocks distractive or anti-social details on a device. So for example, if a person walks into a cinema, their phone automatically suggests them to adhere with the location-based curbs like reducing the brightness level and putting the phone into silent-mode. With just a single tap on the lock-screen, they can detach and adhere with the restrictions until they step out of the cinema. The person would not be allowed inside unless they are detached. CNN says looking at your phone during a movie is one of the most annoying smartphone habits.

How Detach works:

• Built inside the operating system, Detach is accessible manually (with a shortcut) or automatically depending on the proximity with selected locations or people.

• When the user is Detached, the device switches to a lighter, distraction free version of the operating system with only the essential and unrestricted features in context.

• Detach UI is always in grayscale mode. Images cannot be viewed except system icons.

• All notifications are disabled — apart from calls, alarms, important reminders, calendar events or text messages from selected contacts.

• Connectivity like Wi-Fi, Cellular and Bluetooth is limited to certain features like proximity driven restrictions which would require bluetooth-based device tracing / iBeacons.

• Contrary apps like the Camera can still be used to click pictures but without a live-preview/ viewfinder. This way, photos can only be seen once the user has switched back to normal.

• User defined time constraints will keep the device detached until the time has passed.

• Using the social antibodies theory, user defined location-based constraints or proximity with devices of selected friends or family will keep the device detached until the device is out of the geo-fenced area.


Detach UI (Home-screen)

Once the device is detached, the UI is transformed into a lighter, distraction free design.


Detach Shortcut (Control Center)

Allowing the user to quickly Detach.


Detach Shortcut Detail (Control Center)

Allowing the user to schedule or detach with pre-selected friends around.


Detach Settings Page

Under the Settings app giving the user a finer control over the feature.


Detach UI (Phone)

Using only the bottom half of the screen for apps to reduce estate.


Detach UI (Messages)

Most recent conversations are highlighted to focus in the moment.


Detach UI (Camera)

Under the Settings app giving the user a finer control over the feature.


Detach Alert/ Notification based on location (Lock-screen)

Upon entering a location with digital device policies, a notification reminds the user to Detach.

Detach Alert Detail (Lock-screen)

The detail view shows the location-based device policies. For example, disabling the Camera at a nightclub. These policies are set by the venue.

Detach UI w/policies by Berghain (club)

Disabled camera app.

Concept 2 — Notification Delay 

An average user receives 63.5 notifications on their smartphone per day — which can have draining effects since it requires the user to be constantly available and under pressure to promptly respond — both to work and personal messages. Phone notifications follow the model of “random reinforcement” (basically, rewards at irregular intervals), which is known in psychology to be far more demanding to break free of than regular, expected rewards. A 2015 study from Florida State University found that, among students sitting in a test that required their constant attention, any audible interruption from their phone negatively affected the results. Just hearing the ping of a notification was equally as distracting as actually taking a phone call, suggesting to the researchers that “mobile phones can disrupt attention performance even if one does not interact with the device”. This is because phones deliver notifications immediately — which means that there is no expected delay or interval in-between the delivery.


Although Apple and Google offer ‘Do not Disturb’ type settings that allow the user to totally disable notifications for a specified period, it lacks a finer control over what apps should keep delivering notifications and what apps must not. On top of that, Do not Disturb is a total break from notifications — which creates an opportunity to miss important notifications while the feature is enabled. If a new feature was implemented — allowing users to set customised delays or intervals between notifications, then they would not be constantly distracted. And at the same time, they would be able to expect when notifications from certain apps would arrive (depending on their preference). The “Notification Delay” concept allows users to delay notifications simply by time or quantity. Which means they can create intervals for notifications from particular apps or entire app categories (e.g Social Media). And with the quantity option, they can delay notifications until the quantity reaches a particular number. For example, display notifications from Facebook Messenger only when more than 10 deliveries are received. The concept is demonstrated on the Figures below.


Notification Delay Settings Page

Under the Settings app giving the user a finer control over the feature.


Notification Delay Lock-screen UI

Delayed notifications appear together after the pre-selected intervals. 

Concept 3 — Still Typing 

Walking is surely beneficial for one’s health, unless they happen to text and walk. In that case they are putting themselves at serious risk: Researchers have found that, in over a decade’s time, texting and walking has caused more than 11,100 injuries. While we understand that texting and walking is not a great idea, most people still do it. A report from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons revealed that 78% of American adults believe that distracted walking is a serious issue — but only 29% owned up to doing it themselves. The problem is that our brains are evolved to focus attention on largely one task at a time. It is a phenomenon psychologists refer to as ‘inattention blindness’. 60% of people texting while walking veered off course in a study published in 2012 by researchers from New York’s Stony Brook University. Another study from the UK reported that writing a text message whilst walking resulted in significant adaptations in gait. And it is not just texting that causes problems. It is checking emails, using social networking apps and even talking on the phone. To varying degrees, they all pull your attention away from minding your safety while walking. The behavior has spawned debates among lawmakers about whether walking and texting should be illegal. Some cities, such as Honolulu and Rexburg, Idaho, have gone beyond talk and banned distracted walking altogether. The town of Montclair, California, passed a law in January 2018 making it illegal to talk, text or have earbuds plugged into one’s phone when crossing the street. Studies also indicate that texting and driving is a greater distraction and safety threat than dialing a cell phone, driving while drunk, smoking cannabis or talking on a phone.

In order to prevent potential accidents and injuries on streets, we can build a smarter keyboard for mobile operating systems. By simply using the accelerometer combined with assisted GPS, a mobile device can detect when the user is moving continuously. When this movement is detected, the keyboard can automatically lock its keys and present a warning to the user. This warning states that they should avoid typing while moving — and that it can cause an accident. The keyboard can still be unlocked by swiping the slider in case the user finds it necessary to keep typing. Presenting a simple warning every time a user tries to type while moving — can remind them of a potential accident. The keyboard goes back to normal as soon as the user is still.


Concept 4 — Scrolling Distance 

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic begun, a great number of people locked down in their homes in early March, the evening ritual has been systemised: Each night ends the way the day began, with an endless scroll through social media in a desperate search for clarity. To those who have been stuck with the uncontrollable behaviour, this habit has become known as “doomsurfing” or “falling into deep, morbid rabbit holes filled with coronavirus content”.

“Many individuals experience cognitive distortions such as catastrophizing, and doomscrolling could lead to an increase in ruminative thinking and panic attacks.” Dr. Leela R. Magavi, a psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry, a psychiatric care network based in California, told Healthline. Apart from doomscrolling, a user casually scrolls on all kinds of apps and social media services for content. A research commissioned by Tesco Mobile and carried out by blogger and data scientist Leo Qin suggests that the average British person scrolls 5.149 miles per year (or 8.286 km) on their smartphone. However, no smartphone operating system currently offers a built-in tool to analyse how much a user has scrolled. Since there is no default way to do it, the scrolling distance/depth goes unnoticed to the user and with most apps and services using infinite scrolling, it easily create a stickiness situation — where the user finds themselves in a never ending stream of content. 


If operating systems offered a way to track our scrolling distance — simply by calculating it and displaying it, we can use the values to create distance-based limits and alerts to remind us when we have scrolled enough for a day. With this concept, the idea is to implement ‘Scrolling Distance’ as an added feature under ‘Screen Time’ for iOS. Users will be automatically alerted when they have over scrolled on their device (compared to average usage) and they can also set limits in their location-specific metric (e.g., kilometres, miles, feet, inches, etc). So for example, when a user crosses their limit of 75 feet scrolling per day, the user will be notified and all apps with infinite scrolling like Instagram or Twitter will be disabled for the rest of the day. The user can even choose to shift to lagged scrolling which requires longer strokes on the screen to scroll content — which will eventually tire them from using the app.


Scrolling Distance Notification and UI indicator


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