A perfect solution to our smartphone addiction

Would you carry a book everywhere just so that you can read every time you have a few seconds to spare? No? But you do that with your smartphone. Nor are you alone in this. You are addicted to your smartphone. Smartphones are ubiquitous.

You see them used in elevators, queues, waiting rooms and coffee shops. They are consulted at bus stops and in train stations. People use them in supermarkets. You can see people scrolling, tapping and typing almost everywhere you look. We are becoming a world of electronic consumers, addicted to our mobiles.

People using their smartphone at a train station. Credit @jens_johnsson, Unsplash

Dr Nancy Cheever, a media psychologist at California State University, found that our smartphones “keep us in a persistent state of anxiety”. This anxiety can “lead to other things like mental health and physical ailments.”

Dr Jean Twenge, Professor of Psychology at San Diego State University, noted in a study there was a “sudden increase in teens’ symptoms of depression, suicide risk factors and suicide rates in 2012 — around the time when smartphones became popular”.

No-one does anything about it though, and that’s why I’m writing this article.

It’s not entirely the fault of the user. He is lured unwittingly by his addiction.

The power to help us overcome our addictions is in the hands of the corporations supplying our smartphones.

Smartphone makers also recognise that this is an issue. In 2018 both Apple and Google added services to their operating systems (OS) to allow users to monitor and limit their smartphone usage. In 2018 Google introduced Digital Wellbeing, and Apple introduced Screen Time.

Screen Time was introduced for iOS devices by Apple in 2018. Credit Apple Inc.

Imran Chaudhri was a member of the design team responsible for the first iPhone. He developed the Do Not Disturb mode, after taking an early prototype home and realising how distracting it could be.

Chaudhri, who no longer works for Apple, spoke about the implementation of screen monitoring in Apple and Google devices. He suggested these features were a result of the tech giants’ “bad press” rather than a genuine concern for their users.

Here are some things you can do to limit the time you spend on your device:

  • Set the screen to greyscale (black and white)
  • Turn off notifications
  • Turn on Do Not Disturb Mode
  • Remove Social Media apps
  • Remove mail, or try to achieve a 0-Inbox.
  • Remove the addictive apps
  • Uninstall unused apps
  • Use a watch to check the time
  • Set a specific time for using your phone
  • Commit to no phone usage at particular times (e.g. while eating)
  • Practice deep breathing
  • Use another device as an alarm clock and keep your mobile in another room at night
  • Don’t use your phone to listen to music
  • Enable regular, automatic phone backups (So when upgrading/setting up a new phone, you don’t have to waste your time adding all the same apps)

Beyond all of this, smartphone developers could make design changes to their user interface (UI) to help us limit our time using their devices.

At the root of the current problem is that mobile platforms focus on entertainment and user engagement, which causes overuse, anxiety and depression.

A redesign of the user interface (UI) should improve the way we interact with our devices. This would encourage us to spend less time on our devices and make it simpler to achieve any given task.

“SMART UI”, a name I’ll use to refer to this UI redesign, should incorporate a set of essential priorities;

  • Focus on productivity and the ability to achieve any desired tasks without distraction quickly.
  • Encourage real-world engagement between friends and family.
  • Support its users to quickly get involved in their local communities to feel better connected and to help society.

The main objective is to stop the user from wasting their own time.

We need to begin by understanding what functionality is absolutely necessary, and then we can strip back the rest.

Apple and Google let the user restrict the usage of apps on smartphones; this reduces productivity and defeats the point of having a smartphone.

The app guidelines should enforce strict design rules on all apps.

These guidelines should encourage minimalism and productive capabilities while being conscious of how their app could be overused.

Facebook’s yearly ad revenue (USD). Credit Statista

Developers currently make ad revenue when users spend time in their app. Therefore these developers spend a lot of time and money ensuring the app is as addictive as possible.

If the smartphone provider is responsible for more services, more energy could be put into productivity, speed of use, real-world engagements and community involvement.

Being responsible for multiple services makes maintaining control over the experience straightforward.

The smartphone provider has already made its profit on the phone upon purchase. Therefore they would be merely creating a more compelling product for their customers.

The Apple iPhone home screen has kept the same layout it had back when it was originally released in 2009. Credit @bhaguz, Unsplash.

The home-screen design of the smartphone has remained very similar to the one released on the original iPhone in 2009.

Apple designed icons on the iPhone home screen to look like real-world objects to ensure the user understands the purpose of an app. Notes app icon looked like a notepad, Clock app icon looked like a clock and Maps app icon looked like a map.

This skeuomorphic design helped ease the transition from devices with small screens and buttons to a full-screen touch device.

Apple chose to display colourful app icons in a grid layout as it allowed for a shallow learning curve.

Unlocking the phone, opened the app it was on when it was locked. This feature helped with usability.

This simplicity has achieved its purpose with most people being able to use their smartphones without difficulty.

Now the homepage serves more of a distraction than a productive feature.

How many times do you unlock your phone for a specific reason and become distracted? Only to realise that you’ve completely forgotten why you’d unlocked your phone in the first place?

Perhaps it’s time to redesign the home screen.

Chinese citizens use an app called WeChat, an all-in-one ‘super-app’ that achieves most of the services provided by the following media companies and services;

  • Facebook
  • WhatsApp
  • Instagram
  • Skyscanner
  • Uber
  • Phone
  • Daily Cash
  • Healthcare services
  • Utility Services
  • Flight and Rail booking
  • Shopping
  • Cinema tickets
  • Stock Market Investments

A case can be made for the SMART UI to take on many of the social and utility aspects of apps on their devices.

A native SMART UI app could add the functionality of any of the services mentioned above, combining all potential providers into simple and easy to use native apps.

These native apps create a more user-friendly experience while making a fairer environment for competition.

SMART UI could combine all social networking feeds into one app.

The apps developed by independent social platforms exposes its’ users to design techniques designed to ensure the user stays for as much time as possible.

SMART UI’s social app could;

  • Have a limited scroll that would limit time spent in the app
  • Promote posts that would engage the user in real-world activities and create real-world friendships with like-minded people.

SMART UI would quickly learn users interests, seeking the best and most relevant content for that user across multiple platforms.

This native social media app would create a more level playing field for social networks, promoting the ones that had the best content to benefit their users.

Imagine the power of our smartphones, if they suddenly managed to get each user to contribute to their local community or charities work, and make real connections in the process.

A messenger app could work similarly.

By combining multiple service providers, SMART UI’s messenger app could contain every conversation and allow users to filter all messages depending on service/content.

Features would be controlled by the native app to ensure the best overall experience.

Aside from the above points. Here is a list of the changes I think are necessary to turn our smartphones into a tool for production and happiness.

  • Entirely Black/White UI
  • All icons should be simple in both black or white supporting light and dark mode.
  • Limit real imagery as much as possible.
  • Use dark colours, saturation or shades of grey that would switch depending on light/dark mode.
  • Homepage to include a search bar for quick access
  • The search uses multiple related keywords for any given search item. For example, “note”, “document” and “transcript” could suggest the notes and voice memos app.
  • Utilising AI allows the system to suggest apps that you associate with keywords. For example, if you search “trans” from the previous example, it would understand you want the notes app based on your history and suggest it first.
  • Search bar prioritises the community and societal engagement over other apps.
  • Remove the app icon grid, and replace it with an A-Z list of all installed apps.
  • Create multiple all-in-one apps combining all individual providers for services such as social media feeds or messages.
  • Automatically archive messages once they’ve been responded to, only to reappear in the inbox when receiving a new message from that user, or starting a new conversation with them.
  • Automatically archive messages after a time frame specified by the user.
  • Provide easy ways for users to connect with groups and charities that align with their passions, to help users be more active in society using a built-in social app.
  • ‘Do Not Disturb’ and ‘Dark’ mode being activated automatically at night. Turn off all notifications, including ones for calls (Except for emergency calls from specified users), while also turning the screen dark for night usage.
  • Adjust brightness and warmth (orange colour) automatically as the dark mode is activated, making it easier on the eyes.
  • Remove the settings app. Move the settings to a profile that’s accessible from the home screen.
  • Stop the phone from opening the previously used app when unlocking and instead open on the homepage.
  • Contacts app contains contacts with links directly to their social media feed/message.
  • Allow users to share their phone social feed via a QR code.
  • A relax button on the lock screen to quick start a meditation with vibrations controlling in/outbreathe.
  • Set apps as daily tasks for specific days and times, at which they would appear on the minimalist home-screen, and disappear upon completion.
  • Make clickable content appear in the bottom half of the screen to allow the user to access the tools they need quickly with one-handed use easily.
  • Auto close all apps at night during sleep, save all open Safari tabs as bookmarks and clearing them from the interface.
  • Auto closes an app after 30 mins of inactivity unless specified otherwise in settings.
  • Automatically uninstalling unused apps and saving a list of uninstalled apps in the settings.
  • Very minimal lock screen
  • Track usage of unproductive apps and after they’ve spent some time on the app, recommend that they either set a daily limit or delete the app.
  • Once reaching the daily limit, remove any instances from the multitasking tray and the A-Z list of installed apps.
  • All notifications are switched off by default and need manually turning on.
  • Hide any notifications in a user profile on the phone. The user profile should be accessible from the home screen.
  • Allow the user to limit the number of pickups per hour.
  • After reaching their limit; they can unlock with a password. This limit restricts the user to a customisable time-limited usage period which utilises a precise timer. This feature would coincide with a dimmed screen.
  • The user could customise the pickup limit for different days and times, with a separate time limit for sleep cycles.

For mental health: this is how I would design smart phone apps

Certain apps would fall outside the scope of the all-in-one apps created by smartphone providers. These apps should adhere to rigid and strict rules.

These rules should encourage a standard style and user functionality which would ensure the efficiency of use. They are;

  • Make their entire UI black and white, to allow full functionality in dark mode.
  • Wordy titles and long brand names are not allowed on the main screen; they can, however, feature small symbol like logos placed in the top left corner of the main screen.
  • A profile icon on theta right of the main screen should allow access to all information regarding an account plus app settings.
  • Make critical actions and content available from the SMART UI home-screen search bar.
  • Feature a search bar on the main screen, which shows all menu items before the user begins to type.
  • Create quick action tools within the search to allow the swift completion of any task.
  • Utilise a quick action button to access an AI-controlled feed of recommended content. The feed must be limited to ten items which must remain the same for 24 hours.
  • Scroll down from the main page to find the content of app if required.
  • Put all content into as few categories as possible, and show the categories/quick actions directly after scrolling down from the main page.
  • Use the primary colour from their branding as an accent colour if needed.
  • Add a thin horizontal divider between main page search and the app content below, which can be coloured with the apps accent colour.
  • Use a similar style to the A-Z list of apps of the native SMART UI for any large lists.
  • Simple one function apps such as VPN services and translator apps are allowed to put their primary function on the main page without a scroll or search bar requirement. They do, however, need to put any additional information/additional functionality in the top left profile menu.
  • Simple one function apps such a calculator, and currency conversion services that utilise a history of previously searched items must show them below the main page after scrolling.
  • Previous search history/account details and history can scroll without limit if needed, but needs include a search function.

This radical new approach to smartphone UI could encounter issues with adoption. These could come from three primary sources; the user, smartphone/UI maker and the services the UI would disrupt.

The user could be against such a new approach to UI simply because they’re not used to it.

Smartphone makers are multi-billion dollar businesses that upgrade their products in iterations of minor changes. A profound change in their smartphones’ UI could affect their bottom line too profoundly.

Many of the services that would be affected make a profit from the user spending time in their app. In-app advertising accounts for the majority of profit that these companies make. Therefore they would be unhappy to adhere to such rules.

Should a SMART UI become a reality, we’d see many services related info set up and stored in the settings of the smartphone provider. Many of the apps we currently have installed would have their accounts’ set up in the native SMART UI apps.

Storing phone data this way could mean users smartphones wouldn’t need the individual apps installed on the device. If the account stores this data in the cloud, it would allow for smartphone devices to become interchangeable.

Meaning a user could simply login to their smartphone account from any phone, see their data, then log out again. This feature would mean smartphones wouldn’t need to be as powerful and can become cheaper and more accessible.

Users would enjoy more fulfilling experiences with their smartphones, using them to make real friendships and a real impact on their local communities.

The smartphone UI has the potential to make us all better people, and even improve society.

Thanks for reading my thoughts on SMART UI, feel free to subscribe to my channel as I’m going to be exploring this idea more over the coming months, with a mockup coming too.

If you think I’ve missed anything from my research or have any ideas yourself? Let me know in the comments.

Do you love the idea of a SMART UI that works to benefit your everyday life?It’s about time for a smartphone revolution.

Share this article on your preferred social network and spread the word. The potential for a genuinely life-changing smartphone interface is staggering.

It’s up to us to change the platform from the bottom up, through word of mouth and bad publicity of their current operating systems. Here’s to creating a better future for everyone.

I am an experienced UX/UI Designer with an entrepreneurial spirit, focused on building useful products for people. Check out akbmedia.co.uk for more.

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