In the middle of a dark bedroom, a small screen is shining bright.
Are you one of the many people who falls asleep with their phone? I am. In fact, the National Sleep Foundation reported back in 2011 that four out of ten American smartphone users are doing just that. Since then, those numbers probably hasn’t decreased.
So why do I (and a large group of Americans) feel the need to scroll through every app until our eyes are shut for the night?
This is what I chose to investigate for my master’s thesis during my university studies as an interaction designer. Not surprisingly, the answer turned out to be a bit complex. When looking at statistics about sleep itself, reports aren’t extremely positive. According to the National Board of Health and Welfare in Sweden, the amount of females diagnosed with various mental health problems and sleep disorders has increased by 71% from 2010 to 2015. In America, 1/9 people suffers from insomnia (chronic sleep disorder), which translates to around 40 million people.
So we have a large group of people that’s having trouble to sleep and are night time phone users, therefore there must be a lot of solutions made for this target group?
The problem is that every piece of text I could find on the topic were all attacking the users for bringing their phone into the bedroom. The internet had begun its blame-game, with headlines like: “5 Reasons Why You Need To Stop Using Your Phone In Bed At Night” and “6 Ways That Night-time Phone Use Destroys Your Sleep”. Although I have to give these articles half a point for warning about the notorious blue light that screens are emitting, it’s proven to be disruptive of sleep. But that’s no reason to panic since most smartphones today has a warm screen filter built-in that kicks in during the evening by default.
Of course, going to bed in a stress-free environment with feather-light pillows, no internet connection within miles and a professional masseur gently rubbing your shoulders would be a nice solution for a good night’s sleep. But that’s not the most common situation.
“I have a hard time falling asleep without my phone. It makes me fall asleep faster, when I don’t have to just stare at the ceiling. It’s mainly to have something to do”
What I’ve learnt as an interaction designer is that it’s important to take the users habits into account when designing a solution, not telling the majority to make a 90-degree turn.
There are studies done upon people suffering from insomnia (without any connection to phone usage) which concludes that they benefits from being distracted during bedtime. The most mentioned factors causing troubles to fall asleep for insomniacs was stress and difficulties in redirecting attention, two pain-points which was reduced when distracted with cognitive tasks. This method could very well be applied to a screen. Similar goes for mood management, imagery distraction and psychological reactions to shapes and colors.
After writing my master’s thesis about beneficial smartphone interactions during night time, I’ve come to the realisation that there’s little regard for night time usage during the UX design process. There exists a bunch of sleep apps on the market today, but none of those were the most commonly used during my study. After performing interviews, questionnaires and tests, the one who triumphed them all were social media apps.
Social media is a place where you can brag and tag, as long as you always appear happy and successful. This has created a social pressure of always being active and available online. With apps displaying time-last-seen and online status, people tend to feel observed and pressured to respond within minutes, even during lights out.
JOMO — The Joy of Missing Out
After doing the research, the solution I came up with together with Daresay in Umeå was a sleep-filtered feed in Instagram, working as an internal feature that’s blocking out posts during night time that might cause anxiety or stress. To improve the filter functionality, the users had the ability to filter out posts themselves as well.
A deep pit hole in social media is the infinity scroll. By only displaying new posts, the feed got a defined start and stopping point. A message was put in the bottom of the feed together with a button to load older posts. This was designed to encourage the users to shut down the app. If they really wanted to keep scrolling at least they had to opt-in, all posts wasn’t just presented to them by default.
Another very important feature was to decrease the amount of interactions between users. To do so, Direct messages and Stories (which are two functions you’ll recognize if you’re an Instagram user) where removed to ease the social pressure.
The concept was tested as a hi-fi prototype upon a group of 8 self-reported bad sleepers for 5 nights. To find the right amount of guidance the participants needed, a concept for a Sleep coach was tested upon half of the group that sent them reminders during the evening.
The test results of the concept blew my expectations. The people loved being restricted during night time. I also asked the participants to write a sleep diary each morning to fill in their emotions and how long it took them to fall asleep the previous night. After the fifth night of using the prototype, the mean value had dropped from 64 to 27 minutes.
“Lovely colors, very calming. Good functionality to be able to delete images and customize my own feed.” — P3
“It feels like a tool that could work really well to reduce stress, and facilitate a better sleep!” — P7
When gathering the evaluation form afterwards, 85.7% really appreciated the restricted interactivity and 71.5% would like to have a filtered feed in all their social media feeds.
It might be tricky to get every popular social media to change their functionality, especially remove some of their functionality for the sake of their users’ sleep. But with big companies like Google and Apple releasing their new concepts for Digital Wellbeing during the spring of 2018, other might follow. Both Google (with Android 9) and Apple (with iOS 12) has incorporated a dashboard presenting data, which is giving the user information about their own usage. After my research, I think it’s unlikely that their dashboards will be a solution to healthier users, particularly not during night time. But at least it’s a good first step towards increased knowledge about digital wellbeing.
Make your design give the users the Zzz…
We know that people are currently using their smartphones throughout the 24 hours of a day, which needs to take into consideration when creating concepts.
Night time usage needs to be given greater focus when talking about UX, and not how to increase the use but to increase the snooze.
Creating solutions in line with reducing experienced stress among the users will enhance the users’ well being, and in extension prolong their use of the app. It is a win-win situation for both parts, with a healthier, happier and more well-rested group of users.
There’s many benefits of power up the phone while wiring down the mind. Looking at the results from the study, the participants fell asleep faster when being exposed to the right kind of content and functionality at night. It’s important to include suitable nocturnal features when designing apps, no matter what category they belong to.
We need to shape the foundation of real digital wellbeing and construct healthy human-computer interactions, both for the future market of apps and the future health of our users.
These are some of the findings from my study as a M.Sc in Interaction and Design. Of course, there are much more to be investigated in the field of night-time user experience. That’s why I encourage everyone to start thinking (and talking) about digital wellbeing.
The full version of the thesis will be up soon on my portfolio for those who wants to read more about my process and findings.