Tell me if this sounds familiar: You want to check the time, so you pull out your phone. But as soon as you turn on that screen, time suddenly becomes the least of your concerns. You remember to check email, then figure out you might as well read up on Twitter and Instagram, too. Before you know it, 15 minutes or more have passed–maybe in your bed at night, maybe at your dinner table–and your heart is palpitating at the name “Donald Trump.”
It’s moments like these that make the Google’s Pixel 2 smartphone’s quietest feature its best. Featuring an “Always On Display,” the screen perpetually shows the time, date, and a very small row of app icons which show new updates in black and white. Only the pixels that are lit draw power, which means that your battery is taxed only minimally as most of the screen stays off.
After a week playing with the Pixel 2, this clock is the phone’s single best standout feature. Sure, the camera seems great. The display itself is gorgeous. The Google Assistant hears my voice so clearly. The–well, you get the picture. All this stuff, however painstakingly designed and engineered it may be, is table stakes in the iPhone age.
No, it’s the clock–the feature my flip phone had in 1998–that has ever so slightly improved my quality of life, muting the siren song of my smartphone by presenting the most frequent reason I check it, front and center, without urgent notifications. This accomplishment, however, is no surprise to the company. It was exactly what Google wanted to do with the feature.
“The goal was just not having to turn on your phone as often,” says Allen Huang, product manager on Android UI and the Pixel’s display. “And one of the key aspects of our design was keeping the notifications minimal, so it’s not quite as distracting and [constantly pulling you] down the rabbit hole.”
The project started when Pixel’s engineers realized that they’d be able to create an always-on screen. They raised the possibility with the rest of the team, and the question became, what could Pixel’s designers do with it? Notably, Motorola and Samsung have both debuted phones with similar, always-on screens, which use clever engineering to localize power consumption at the pixel level to sip battery life. Samsung’s features colorful designs. Motorola’s allows you to see notifications and swipe your way in. Neither was necessarily ideal.
“We had designers pull together a bunch of ideas,” says Huang–who notes that teams across Google had thoughts on how to use this real estate. “And I hand it to the design team for sticking to their guns and being minimal . . . One of the key things we think about is, ‘this is a glanceable thing, it’s not meant to engage you.’
So on this screen, you’ll find no emails. No text messages. No alerts as you know them. You may find a somewhat odd “Now Playing” feature, which listens for music playing around you and displays the song like Shazam. Even though no data goes to the cloud, the idea of Google always listening was creepy enough for me to not opt-in to that particular tool, however deep into my brain those earworms bore.
Aside from that blip, you’ll mostly just see the time, rendered in a way that’s purposefully so dim that it looks more like print than some digital rendering. The quality of this effect can’t be overstated. It’s tasteful but not alluring–the antithesis of the Candy Crush graphics we celebrate as “delight.” It’s just information, presented as apolitically as a subway sign.
“You picked up your phone for a reason,” says Huang. “Let’s get you to that reason as quickly as possible without distracting you. There’s no benefit to distracting the user on the way to accomplishing a task.”
Google is not the only company considering “glanceability” as a means to limit distraction. After all, it was one of the sole value propositions of the Apple Watch or Android Wear–just look at your wrist more to look at your phone less! But the Apple Watch really just brings all those pingy notifications, all those correspondences we owe other people in our lives, out of our pockets and onto our wrists. And should you choose to deal with them, you get to either work on a 1.4-inch screen or just pull that phone from your pocket like a glimmering lure that’s caught the trout’s eye.
Indeed, Huang assures me that Android designers are concerned with the problem of the engagement economy, and highlights Google’s unique position as smartphone platform owner in addressing it. “Gosh, I could go on forever on this particular topic. There’s a benefit to being Android system UI. The challenge is, most apps, the way they think about success is primarily through engagement and activity, honestly. For your everyday apps that’s kind of the goal. There’s such a popularity around . . . growth hacking. That’s kind of a currency in digital services,” he says. “At the end of the day, people are always using the phone. And I think being system UI, it’s not like we’re trying to increase engagement with your home screen. That’s never going to be a metric we’re tracking and trying to improve. The goal of the UI is to get you where you need to go.”
In turn, he points out that even the notifications on the Pixel’s always-on screen are mere black and white logos. There are no numbers next to them or any other sort of annotated guilt. And in this sense, it’s actually a mirror of Android O’s new design for app notifications, which instead of deploying those red push alerts that we see dotting the apps in iOS, uses a tiny dot, color matched to the icon, to signify a pending notification.
The challenge now? Whether Google can keep this feature truly minimal in the long term without being tempted to add more notifications. On this point, Huang admits that Google is thinking of expanding its features, but making them opt-in only, and extremely focused on specific use cases. (One example the team is toying with is allowing someone to add their daily step count to this screen.)
As of today, however, the clock could add tangible benefits to Pixel users beyond their improved real-world attention spans. “We don’t have stats around this. There’s [just] a theory that you’ll turn on your clock less because there’s a clock on the screen, and it’ll actually save power because you turn your screen on less,” says Huang. In other words, Google’s new clock might encourage us to use our phones less, so that we can use them more. That’s one of life’s little ironies that I’ll gladly accept.