“Only Four So You Can Do More!”

by Sydney Hansen, Nina Payiatis, Sara Kollig, and Helen Kemper

A mockup of our simple interface design

I. Define the Problem

The smartphone changed how humans function on a daily basis. Things that were difficult and complicated — such as navigation — are now very simple. The smartphone is a person’s link to the knowledge of the world, and distance is irrelevant to the internet. With such a variety of needs being met by one device, it is easy to see why in 2018, 77% of Americans own a smartphone. However, for all that technology has enriched our world, a problem has emerged: as a species, humans are very susceptible to screen addiction. Carefully designed user interfaces and the nature of the human psyche has caused us to direct more attention to intangible, digital goals than into our own lives. We want to find ways, through design, we can turn technology into a tool to pursue real goals, support human values, and live life more fully.

After researching online sources, interviewing our peers, and evaluating the phone’s influence in our own lives, we found ourselves closer to identifying a specific goal we wanted to achieve. We all agreed that we would feel more productive without our phones. The biggest culprit is constant notifications and social media. We knew we wanted to design something that will limit the amount of time wasted on our phones and instead enhance our productivity. Our phones can help us communicate, calculate, connect. So we want to enhance and isolate those capabilities and give our users the ability to remove and limit the use of distracting apps. Our mission statement is as follows:

Mission: to design a system that encourages user behavior towards creativity and productivity whilst challenging mindless usage and wasted time. Thus, we wanted to deeply examine how people feel about their wasted time in relation to their devices. We created a survey and found that many people agree that they don’t use their phones for the best reasons.

II. Research

There are many factors that cause smartphones to be so addictive- and damaging to mental health. Only by analyzing what those factors are can we make sure our design doesn’t include them. The list is very long, but these three are the most prominent or harmful.

  1. Menu Bias

Apps and digital interfaces operate with a system of menus. Often we don’t realize how we are limited by menus. Menus reframe our needs in terms of limited options. An article we read gave an excellent example:

For example, imagine you’re out with friends on a Tuesday night and want to keep the conversation going. You open Yelp to find nearby recommendations and see a list of bars. The group turns into a huddle of faces staring down at their phones comparing bars. They scrutinize the photos of each, comparing cocktail drinks. Is this menu still relevant to the original desire of the group?
It’s not that bars aren’t a good choice, it’s that Yelp substituted the group’s original question (“where can we go to keep talking?”) with a different question (“what’s a bar with good photos of cocktails?”) all by shaping the menu.
Moreover, the group falls for the illusion that Yelp’s menu represents a complete set of choices for where to go. While looking down at their phones, they don’t see the park across the street with a band playing live music. They miss the pop-up gallery on the other side of the street serving crepes and coffee. Neither of those show up on Yelp’s menu.

2. Slot Machine Psychology

People, on average, check their phone 150 times per day. At that high of a number, conscious choice cannot account for all of those pickups. What does account for them is intermittent variable rewards. Variable rewards means that every time you play, for example a slot machine, you could either win a reward, or win nothing. It is a highly addictive system, and it is found in small places throughout your phone. Every swipe on Tinder is a slot machine to see if you’ll get a match. Every time you even check your phone, it is a slot machine to see if you have received any notifications.

3. Fear of Missing Out

This psychological phenomena is very prevalent in our generation. It is one of the things that seriously impacts our mental health and productivity. I have noticed it among my friends, and myself. If newsletters, phone calls, contacts, tweets, facebook friends, instagram likes, convince us that they are a channel of information that you might need to know, it becomes very difficult to remove them from our feed. This mentality has turned life, moment-to-moment, into worrying about what we might miss, instead of what we are missing by concentrating on our phones.

a. Surveys

Survey out of 100 people

Some of the statistics that stuck out to us as a group is that 44% of our surveyed group frequently gets sidetracked when trying to accomplish a productivity task on their phone- something that we also saw in observation. Another interesting statistic was that 35% of people frequently feel a compulsion to check their phone immediately after getting a notification. This aligns with our research about the ‘slot-machine’ nature of notifications and phone usage. Many other statistics support our outside research about the addictiveness and strategies of addictiveness that technology uses.

b. Observation

Using iPhone features such as Screen Time and Android apps such as YourHour, we were able to observe, minute by minute, how we spent time on our phone. We were able to regard what apps we spent the most time on, and what time of the days we accessed certain apps. We observed that we spent between 2 and 4, sometimes 5, hours a day on our phone, then reflecting on whether this phone use felt productive. Some group members relied on phones and social media for inspiration in their work, while others felt as though they got distracted by their phones. We then used these observations, alongside our survey results and Think Out Loud Protocol, to create a prototype.

c. Evaluation of existing apps

Mute: Mute is another screen time tracker but it’s the app’s handy push notifications that make it stand out from competitors. Mute can be programmed to send you notifications when your phone usage becomes excessive, and to motivate you when you’ve spent a good chunk of time offline. Leveraging the dopamine burst that comes when you receive push notifications about new texts or likes, Mute uses a similar technique to make you feel good when you’re not on your phone by sending you words of encouragement like “Boom! 2H23M break from your phone!”

Forest: Forest encourages people to “be present” by planting a virtual seed and watching it grow into a tree. The user can select the amount of time they want to stay focused on a task — whether it’s just 10 minutes or 2 hours — and the longer you can concentrate on the task, the more coins you earn that you can use to unlock new kinds of trees or even plant a real tree. If you drop your task and leave the app, your tree will wither. While the virtual gardening concept may sound silly, it’s a surprisingly effective yardstick to measure and visualize your productivity on a day to day basis.

d. Think Out Loud Protocol

Once our prototype was established, we tested it using think out loud protocol. Below is video footage of us testing a peer and asking her how she felt about our design. She explained to us that if we were to allow social media apps to be an option in our design, than it may not be very productive. When asked if she would use something like our design in real life, she said she would when she wanted to be productive.

A compilation of our Think Outloud Protocol interaction

III. Evaluation

a.Affinity diagram

We analyzed our survey results and organized what we found. We started with the main idea: phone/screen usage. Then we determined that the main issues causing excessive phone use were notification compulsions and external/environmental influences such as social acceptance. Of the 137 people who took our survey, 50% answered frequently-all the time when asked if they feel a compulsion to immediately check their phone when a notification pops up.

Our Mandates

  1. Cannot be an app
  2. Designed as simple as possible
  3. Include only the necessary applications
  4. Should force users to be mindful/consider their phone usage and productivity

Our Insights

  1. Allowing people to change what apps they had access to could cause some people to abuse this feature; they could access social media apps for apps that are distracting or unproductive, ultimately defeating the purpose of FlipFour
  2. By forcing users to physically switch their phone on and off, they are changing their course of typical action and are caused to think about their phone use differently or more mindfully.

Our Observations

  1. People feel an extreme attachment to their phone
  2. People use their phone to escape awkward social situations
  3. lots of people surveyed regret time they spent on their phone
  4. Access to social media makes it harder for people to focus
  5. Social media and the internet is often used as a purposeful distraction

b. Personas

In the Moment Abby
Abby, 21, works and lives in the city. She finds value in being present. She believes that most of the time she spends on her phone is a waste. She wants to spend more time on the hobbies and things that she is passionate about and feels like her phone often distracts her from those things that are important. She is looking for a simple solution that will make it easy for her to stay off her phone when not necessary, in order to improve her experience of life.
Productive Paul
Paul is an art student, with many hours of homework per week. He finds that he often goes down rabbit holes on his phone, or checks social media far too frequently when doing his homework. This causes him to spend much longer doing homework than necessary. He often has to use his phone to play music or look at a reference photo while he works, so for him turning it off is not an option to reduce distraction. Paul wishes that he had a way to deactivate the distracting features on his phone, while still having use of music and photos.
Mother Margot
Margot has two kids in middle school, a boy and a girl. She is worried that screens are pulling them away from accomplishing things in the real world. She often sees that her children spend hours and hours playing on their phones and devices instead of playing outside, practicing a skill, being creative, or doing academic work. She is worried about her children missing out on life, and also worried they won’t discover what their talents are. However, she needs to be able to contact them, and she knows that being able to listen to music is important to them. She needs a way to control the features available to her children on the smartphone, and make it a less appealing time waster.

IV. Design/Evaluate Original Design

Following our research, we decided to develop an idea for an app that would help increase productivity among the users who downloaded it. The app, called Flip 4, would only allow the user to have 4 apps to choose from. While the app was open it would operate as thought it was the phone’s natural operating system. It would have four apps with a minimalistic design that the user could use to prevent distraction. The research conducted lead us to design a system that would remove the traditional appeal of smartphones. Following testing the usability of the app design, we discovered it was not that compatible to people’s habits. One could simply close out Flip 4 by pressing the home button. In order to alter the cycle of traditional phone usage, we decided we needed a more physical action in order for users to truly think through their desire for social media and other distractions. We came up with the idea of turning the phone off and on again in order to reset phone to normal setting. This physical action could help bring awareness to the user about their own usage habits and help people to not be so tied to their phone.

  1. We designed paper prototypes for two versions of our prototype. We created a paper prototype for FlipFour, which allowed students to see what using their phone in “flip” mode would actually be like. Then we designed a smart phone paper prototype that showed users how they would modify and access their FlipFour settings in their smartphone.
  2. We tested our paper prototype on students, as students are the majority population we studied. We also asked students to voice their concerns, or their step-by-step thinking process, as they used the paper prototype.
  3. We learned that users should not be given the option to access social media apps in any way shape or form when using FlipFour. Even if a user is hoping to curb their phone use or have a more mindful experience on their phone, social media has proven in our user tests to be a major distractor.

Simple Design: The simple design of our prototype helps to prevent the addictive cycle of satisfaction from the engaging designs social media companies use in their icons and layout. By only using black and white, the psychology behind colors companies use to engage users will not apply. Blue is a common color used by tech companies because it is associated with reliability and trust. Red is an energetic color that promotes a trendy audience. Orange causes a feeling of warning and grabs attention when viewed, even in passing. By removing the psychology of colors from our design, it prevents a reaction within the brain that tempts people to access the content behind the colorful icon. The simplistic icon system prevents interest in the applications and allows the user to look at them for what they are. White is a color that calms and stabilizes, while black is a color of strength and sophistication. Using these two colors helps to relax and bore the users as attempt to drive them away from their phone.

Four Modes: Flip mode of FlipFour only allows users to access 4 main things: Phone Calls, Text, Music, and Camera. Music and photos are the two main apps that people use in their productivity flow, and are all apps that do not contain the aspects of technology that make it addictive. These four apps are not trying to provide you with any menu to change your frame of reference. The only app that has notifications and some intermittent variable rewards is messages, however with messages there is no endless feed, and refreshing doesn’t effect the sending and receiving of messages. A messages slot machine is very boring. Including these few apps, and not more,

Physical Action: By requiring users to activate FlipFour by physically turning their phone on and off, we are changing the way they typically use their phones. Phone users rarely power their phones on and off, thus most of their movement on their phone includes swiping, tapping and interacting with their phone screens. When users power their phone on and off, they are forced to change their typical course of action, and then are more likely to consider what they are doing and take a more mindful approach to their phone use. Furthermore, because it requires more physical activity than usual to switch back and forth between SmartPhone mode and FlipFour mode, phone users are less likely to switch out of FlipFour mode to check social media, which can curb their overall phone usage and make one’s approach to phone use and productivity more mindful.

Notifications: Flip Four only allows simple phone notifications; that in which you would find on a flip phone. Thus, only numeric notifications (“1 text message(s), 2 text message(s), 3 missed call(s)”) create a simple way of notify users of their phone notifications in a way that is not enticing or tempting. We also chose to include notifications because without notifications, phone users would be more tempted to check their phone to see if they have received or missed any messages or calls.

V. Reflect

  1. Our final paper prototype is shown in the gif below. We created two simulations that demonstrated the course of action. One simulation demonstrated when they used their phone in FlipFour mode. The second simulation demonstrated how users would access their settings for FlipFour when their phone was in normal use, called Smartphone Mode. Each demonstrated a flow of action in a step by step process that gave users a choice, creating an interactive experience similar to a digital experience.
  1. Our prototype would be useful, but it may not be utilized to the degree that we would hope. Because there is so much physical action required to use FlipFour, it may not be as approachable to first time users. The layout is rather stark and thus may be unappealing or intimidating to users hoping to have a productive yet inviting experience.
  2. We can’t assume that preferences are realistic. Our preferences, though they may work for us, may not be accepted by everything. Furthermore, we had to look at raw data to consider how people actually use their phones, and then base our prototypes off of these results. We modified, and specifically simplified, our prototype a number of times to create a product that was realistic to a phone user’s behavior; one that did not simply rely on reward, but rather forced users to consider their phone use habits and how they can make their habits more mindful and productive.
  3. We would rate our group a 7 out of 10. While we are proud of our prototype and creating a mindful experience for the user, we recognize that there are some qualities to our prototype that are not quite realistic. Furthermore, we would like to refine the prototype experience to create a more interactive, or more customizable experience that still allows users to create an experience tailored to their habits.

Source links:

Other sources:

Think Out Loud Protocol with Kristina: Dec 4, 2018

Group discussion, evaluative research: November 24

Live Survey: Started November 29-ended Dec 4, 2018