Since 2018, Google (and Apple) have been addressing the 4.5-inch glass elephant in the room: that while smartphones have become essential to modern life, they’re sucking all the attention from the people around us, and making us measurably less happy in the process. Google launched a tool inside Android called Digital Wellbeing, which allows you to track your usage across apps and even set limiters. Then last year, it released a series of experiments, like a paper phone that has all the critical information from your smartphone, but none of the distractions. According to Google, the experiments are “a showcase of ideas and tools that help people find a better balance with technology.”
This week, the Google Creative Lab released three new experiments, all aimed to curb our smartphone addiction, and they range from inspired to downright insulting work. Let’s take a look at each new experiment, ranked from best to worst.
So you want to use your phone less, but the minutes add up to hours fast. Screen Stopwatch replaces your wallpaper with a full-screen counter that literally ticks by every second that you are on your phone. It’s a stupid-obvious idea, but, boy, does this wallpaper add a tension to my chest that makes checking Twitter for news on the impeachment feel like I’m literally diffusing a bomb as quickly as possible. One nice touch is that the number count is an animated old split flap display, a touch of reviled skeuomorphism, sure, but the whimsy does help temper the core tension of the countdown . . . err . . . I should say, the count up!
Screen Stopwatch quickly illustrates that there’s no number that’s a good number, and all I’m left wanting is for this clock to stop ticking as soon as possible. I’m not sure what the longitudinal effect of using Screen Stopwatch would be; it’s only been on my phone for a couple of hours today. Would I learn to ignore it or learn to ignore my phone? I can’t say for sure, but that’s what makes the project such a reasonable experiment in a user interface’s impact on human behavior.
When I saw the screenshots of Activity Bubbles—another wallpaper that depicts each app you open as its own gray bubble, with a volume that represents time spent inside—I thought it would be a winner. Sure, people are terrible at weighing the numerical values depicted in radial graphics, but the idea seemed so delightful! I would be able to see my bad habits stacked up in front of me as infographic evidence of my lack of self-control! Neat!
It is neat. It is delightful. Too much so. I found myself opening more apps just to create a bigger stack of circles. And to make matters worse, each new circle plops into the pile like a satisfying raindrop. It’s truly a wonderful little bit of UI, giving positive reinforcement to my terrible habits. I need Activity Bubbles for running, reading to my children, and consuming vegetables, not for stalking what frenemies are eating for brunch on Instagram.
Lest you think I’m alone in this assessment, the first user comments about Activity Bubbles are all asking for more delight: more bouncy ball effects, and more colors! Make Activity Bubbles [even more] fun! People seem to be recognizing the core experience of joy that the experiment offers, but not the end effect. My feedback? No, don’t make them any prettier, Google. Make them look like a pustule rash that has infected my phone.
Having talked to several Google designers about digital health, I know it’s a real concern to people inside the company. But every now and then, a little voice in my head chimes in: “Google doesn’t want you to give up your phone; they make billions of dollars a year off of the things you do on it. These Digital Experiments are just a red herring, lousy solutions doomed to fail, to put the onus on the user for their smartphone addiction, rather than taking responsibility as a sprawling monopoly to address it instead.”
And it’s hard to silence that voice as I look at the third solution, Envelope. It’s a paper phone that wraps around your real phone, designed by the U.K. studio Special Projects. The clever idea still allows you to dial, and even check the time. But you do miss very important things like text messages.
“The idea is to try to last as long as possible before opening the envelope and getting your phone back,” the team explains in the video above.
In another era, before smartphones took over our lives, I would’ve loved this idea for its wonky, playful UX. (Special Projects produced Google’s printable phone that I mentioned above.) But the more I think about it, the more Envelope feels like an insult to those of us who rely on our smartphones, and the damage those phones are causing in the process.
We’re addicted to screens, in part because they’re fun, in part because they’re essential, in part because they’re addictive by design. Imagine Molson Coors Brewing Company teasing an alcoholic with a koozie that locked booze inside a game, with a tagline like, “The idea is to try to last as long as possible before opening the envelope and getting your Miller Lite back.” The humor turns cruel pretty quickly.
The lives of everyday people are not a joke, and digital health is a real concern of our era. So Google, please, let’s not turn phone addiction into a game that tests self-control. And don’t even float an idea as infeasibly idiotic and downright condescending as using a piece of paper that you have to print out and wrap around your phone to defeat the active efforts of countless companies with unlimited budgets to get us back onto it. It’s not helpful. And it’s not funny.