An Insomniac’s Request
What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an unwilling agnostic and a dyslexic? You get someone who stays up all night torturing himself mentally over the question of whether or not there’s a dog. — DFW, Infinite Jest
Capturing here a product improvement request directed to maintainers of smartphone OS platforms. I will mostly single out Apple first because iOS is the product I am most familiar with and second because as a firm that has staked their reputation and core competency on the intersection of liberal arts and technology I think it is fair that we hold them to highest standards of design.
But first I’m going to make a broad two part claim with the only evidence being my own assertion. Now this claim stems from the countless hours of personal insomnia-induced experimentation over many years, so even though I have no real data to support I believe it deserves at least consideration. Part one of the claim is as follows: for night-time reading of text (i.e. in low light conditions when one is preparing to fall asleep), web pages and apps that contain white text over black background are the least obstructive to transitioning to sleep state. The second part of the claim extends to the experience of consuming content over a period of time, and it is simply that the benefits of the white text over black screen are lost when apps periodically transition between states of black and white background. Of course it goes without saying that forgoing screen viewing altogether has the least impact on sleep, but when you’re stuck tossing and turning until the fatigue finally kicks in, the phone can be a welcome reprieve from silently staring at the back of your eyelids for hours on end — the insomniac’s dilemma.
Why does this matter? Why are these claims worth addressing in a perhaps TLDR blog posted on an otherwise prestigious peer-reviewed platform such as Medium? The introduction of smartphones has not been culturally benign. Besides obvious shifts in fundamental paradigms of communication and computing, more subtly it has been demonstrated that the act of consuming content on a light emitting screen prior to bed (in comparison to a printed page) has measurable detriment on sleep patterns, including both a delay in onset and a reduction in intensity of melatonin, our body’s natural sleep regulating hormone. This type of shift can reduce or delay REM sleep and lead to drowsiness the following morning. When you consider this affect applied across the society scale of smartphone users it is easy to imagine measurable impacts on economic metrics such as productivity or GDP, or perhaps more importantly impacts to individuals and their respective quality of life.
It should be noted that the white on black display is not the only option available for improving user sleep onset. iOS has actually recently rolled out a “Night Shift” feature with an update in 2016 (not yet available on Mac OS), which attempts to address this issue by a global reduction in intensity of the blue frequency of their RGB pixel pallet — the frequencies which have been found to have the most impact on melatonin et al. The result is, how should I say, a putrid hue overlay. The whites carry a hint of orange and the gamut of pictures and graphics are shrunk in that same direction. The benefit of this approach is that it is a global, one size fits all fix requiring no further changes to OS or third party app design. In other words, it is the path of least resistance.
Many third party apps carry their own version of a night reading mode, will quickly survey here on those social media and reading apps which (I assume) carry the bulk of screen time. Facebook? Hmm, actually nothing. Twitter? Well it has a night mode with white on black, but then as soon as you click on an embedded link it opens a browser with whatever screen configuration of that link, so unless you’re following a link to the Daring Fireball blog you’re right back in pupil shrinking white screen mode (see claim 2 above). Of browsers, Chrome is nada and Safari, well at least they try, with a reader mode allowing for kindle style pallet selection, unfortunately that selection reverts to default colors when you leave an article’s page (see claim 2 above). So really the only app I’ve found that allows for the preferred uninterrupted black screen night viewing content consumption are the kindle and iBook readers. This is unfortunate because my (again anecdotal) experience is that the short lengths, minimal penalties of non-retention, and often low thought overhead of social media posts are perfect for preparing for sleep — whereas drifting off to drowsiness while reading long form kindle works mean you have to backtrack to an unknown point when next picking a book up.
Now there is another option available for those that are willing to sacrifice pictures and graphics. iOS has an invert color feature under the accessibility options, one that can even be applied to the triple-click shortcut for ease of activation. Since most every text-based app and website defaults to the white background, and most importantly that same default usually carries through to say transitioning between pages and links, this is the current best solution I have found to night viewing — even better than the built in Night Shift. Granted the approach is a little hacky, and inverted profile pictures and graphics definitely take some getting used to, but since a reversion to original view is only a triple click away it is easy enough to uninvert (yes I made up a word, it means revert) when necessary.
Putting myself in a design team’s shoes, I can imagine why we ended up with the putrid Night Shift feature instead of a black screen approach. Although originating and still most commonly used in the defense industry and other high tech arenas, the tools and framework of systems engineering are just as applicable to development of product systems in the consumer electronics sphere, and I expect are widely used in a company like Apple. By formalizing the process of design and capturing activities at all stages of a product lifecycle, the framework provides a rigor, an assurance that considerations of all stakeholders are addressed, and common language and standards for practitioners.
Unfortunately the tools of systems engineering are not a one-sized-fits all solution. They work best on a process that can be isolated from it’s surroundings as a black box with defined inputs and outputs — say designing a DVD player or a new missile. For those systems with more interactions with their surroundings such as may demonstrate emergent properties, the modeling of a system performance may prove to be impractical and thus the V Model framework less effective — this scenario is imaginatively labeled by systems engineers as “systems of systems” (aka SoS).
In the case of designing a smartphone OS feature such as Night Shift, a practitioner looking to apply the tools of systems engineering to the problem is thus first interested in defining the boundaries of the problem to avoid complex interactions with exterior systems such an OS interacting with 3rd party apps or a browser interacting with unique web pages. The Night Shift is the path of least resistance because it performs independent of screen contents, a global shift to putrid. The invert colors feature is also this kind of global solution independent of content. There is nothing high tech about these tactics, in fact I think they could easily have been applied to the earliest color Nokia or Motorola cell phones of yesteryear with the technology of that time. Nowadays we literally have supercomputers in our pocket, why can’t we bring that power to bear on a fundamental problem that affects us 12 hours out of each day, complexity be damned?
What could a night shift of the future look like? Well I’d like to see it intelligently transform content in direction of white text / black background while leaving color images and graphics intact. It would maintain this configuration even upon transitions between apps and web pages. And it would function automatically at the OS level with simple activation options such as via the accessibility triple click. At it’s simplest such a feature could be a collection of rules for what type of content to invert colors, or perhaps using more modern tools could even be addressed using a machine learning algorithm trained to determine what features of a screen to modify for ideal night viewing (although I’m not sure exactly what kind of training data would be suitable). Yes the path of least resistance is to provide a stopgap solution via the putrid shift and leave it to the 3rd party developers to compete on their own, but I believe social media apps that link to content on the internet do not design their own browser for in-app content viewing, so until such time that we see a Facebook branded web browser etc then these social media apps won’t be able to customize external content — thus this is an issue for the OS or at least the browser. Apple is a company built on the intersection of liberal arts and technology, their core competency is anticipating consumer needs. It’s small wonder that third party app developers don’t all arrive independently at a solution for a problem that no one is acknowledging. Just how many hours do you think collective smart phone users spend reading their phones in bed every night globally — hundreds of millions? More? By deferring to app developers, only offering easy fixes, and not leading by example of best in class design standards in their Safari browser, Apple is shirking an opportunity to apply their competency to improve their platform, and perhaps the sleep patterns of millions of people in the process.
PS — While on the subject of iOS improvement requests, the iOS web browser experience of reading content of PDF documents is a nightmare. A simple scroll results in a page number display overlaid in the worst possible screen position — the upper left corner — literally the most valuable screen real estate in the English language. Oh and if you want to search for a string in a document? Good luck in the browser, best bet is to either upload to google docs or open in iBooks. Tisk tisk Adobe. Tisk tisk.