Digital Wellness: the future of mobile app development or a passing fad?

The data is out: we’re addicted. We’re spending almost six hours a day online and of those 3.3 hours are on mobile devices. We are officially addicted to our phones.  The conversation around addictions often focuses on the addicted “just stopping” whatever it is they’re addicted to. Yet an entire industry built on gum and patches to help smokers quit shows us that it’s not easy. It therefore surprises me when the response to so-called “smart phone addiction” is to just stop. It’s a bit more complicated than that, to the point where 70% of Google’s users have said they want help “managing their digital lives.”

Managing digital lives doesn’t mean completely disconnecting from technology or throwing phones away. It’s about finding a balance that works better that what users have today. Back in May at I/O, Google introduced Digital Wellness features for Android P that will include:

  • A digital dashboard that shows users how much time they spend in what apps, how frequently they use an app, and how many notifications they received from an app. Notification customization was launched as part of Android Oreo and some apps have already created a very comprehensive notification settings that allow users to fine-tune what notifications they receive.
  • Setting limits on time spend in apps, after which the app icon is grayed out.
  • Shush mode, where notifications are turned off. This mode is, very intuitively, turned on when users place their phone face down, such as at  meeting or a meal. Temporary turn off of notifications can also be set manually.
  • A bedtime wind down which includes Night Light and shifting the screen to grayscale. Night Light reduces blue light, which prevents photoreceptors from triggering the release of the sleep hormones, thus delaying sleep. Grayscale is said to reduce the phone’s attractiveness to users.   
  • Deeper analysis of time spent in Google apps including Gmail and YouTube, to help users understand what they’re spending their time on.
  • Time management as part of parental control.

iOS 12’s Screen Time dashboard.
Source: Apple

Not to be outdone, Apple also announced Screen Time management tools at its developer’s conference last week, further cementing this trend. Apple announced features that are mostly similar to the Android tools except the convenient “shush” gesture and the night time wind down with gradual grayscale, though they do have an automatic blue light reduction mode.

The dashboards are definitely a good start in helping users understand what it is they’re doing for 3.3 hours a day on their phone, and if there is a single app or category of apps that takes up a bulk of their time. That said, I feel like there are two areas where users are going to need help on and both are ones app developers aren’t going to like.

First up, notifications. One of the best ways to help users not pick up their phone as often will be understanding and controlling notifications, so it’s good that in both iOS 12 and Android P the dashboard will include how many notifications are received by each app.

However, notifications are the best technique apps have to get users to come back and engage with an app, and that’s something they’re not going to give up on just because it’s better for users. John Hermann wrote about the power of notifications earlier this year, referring to iOS’s notification badges, the red dots: ”when platforms or services sense their users are disengaged, whether from social activities, work or merely a continued contribution to corporate profitability, dots are deployed: outside, inside, wherever they might be seen.” The dots/notifications draw users back to an app: “what’s so powerful about the dots is that until we investigate them, they could signify anything: a career-altering email; a reminder that Winter Sales End Soon; a match, a date, a “we need to talk.” The same badge might lead to word that Grandma’s in the hospital or that, according to a prerecorded voice, the home-security system you don’t own is in urgent need of attention or that, for the 51st time today, someone has posted in the group chat.”

Google Maps notification control with 45 different options, each with an importance setting and a dot on/off.

It’s this unknown that Google tried to address in Android Oreo by giving developers the ability to break down control of notifications and to allow users to set different priorities. A good example of this is in the Google Maps app where users can get notifications on everything from traffic alerts to popular businesses. Some are useful, some are not, but users can at least control what they see and not just turn off every notification. Google Photos also does this well, offering options to monitor backup progress and also to turn off promotional notifications. When it gets to non-Google apps, though, developers are less inclined to offer that level of detail. For example the United Airlines app, where notifications are useful for learning about flight delays or gate changes but not as helpful when it’s just promotional.

Regardless, helping users tame notifications has to come from app developers and it will be interesting to see if any beyond Apple and Google take significant steps to let users have more control. It will also be interesting if at any point notification control becomes a differentiating feature that users pay attention to. Right now it seems like it’s more of a nice-to-have for users, not really required.

Notifications are not the only area for potential improvement. The wellness dashboards will give users insight into how much time they’re spending in apps. This can be especially insightful in apps that aren’t utilities such as maps, messaging, and ridesharing, but are focused on scrolling through a social feed or watching videos, where the goal is to keep users engaged for as long as possible. As with notifications, helping users understand how they’re spending time in such apps and cutting down on that time will be up to app developers. This seems like an uphill battle but Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom has put a finger on what could become a better approach for both users and developers: putting the focus on time well spent as opposed to just time spent: “We’re building tools that will help the IG community know more about the time they spend on Instagram – any time should be positive and intentional.” Beyond just showing users how much time they’ve spent, Instagram will let them know when they’ve caught up to everything posted in the last 48 hours, which can help to make the time scrolling through the feed more focused and having a defined endpoint.

These are the kind of features that will make a difference. Yet, as with notification control, they have to come from app developers, not just the mobile operating system, and right now I don’t see that happening. On the contrary, I see comments like Netflix CEO Reed Hastings explaining how Netflix’s actual competitor is sleep, something that’s actually good for humans. “You get a show or a movie you’re really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep,” he said of his No. 1 competitor. Not that he puts too much stock in his rival: “And we’re winning!” No, we’re all losing.

Looking ahead, though, I am optimistic. I think this is one trend that users will drive and demand that their favorite apps develop dashboards and controls. Just like privacy, with growing awareness will become increased demand, and with demand, the right products.

One thought on “Digital Wellness: the future of mobile app development or a passing fad?

  1. Pingback: Digital Wellness on Android: a second look | What it all boils down to

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