Murphy says he realised he had to change his habits when his five-year-old kid asked him why he was constantly looking at his phone, and last year he led the design of Android’s Digital Wellbeing tools, which let users analyse their usage and set limits.
Google’s research shows that people aren’t getting the same sense of satisfaction from their phones as they used to. They have more utility than ever before, so people want to have their phones on them at all time, but that has undesirable side effects.
“People have this super deep need to connect to each other, and I think that leads to this feeling of obligation,” Murphy says. “If you send your spouse or partner a message, and they take two hours to respond, you feel anxious. That kind of anxiety permeates a lot of interactions we have.”
On the other side of things people also feel the need to respond immediately, so their partner or friends don’t think they’re being snubbed.
“It creates this interesting cycle of use,” Murphy says. “Your phone is super useful, it’s a big part of your life. You always have it with you and if someone sends you a message you respond right away, and then you have your phone in your hand and what do you do next? You probably send some messages to other people. And so it perpetuates.”
The cycle’s so pervasive that when people are forced to be without their phone it can make them very stressed or worried that their connection to friends or loved ones has been severed, but Murphy says becoming re-accustomed to life without constant ambient notifications is an important part of digital wellness. He recalls a Google study involving a rural community in Japan that only had basic non-smart mobile phones.
“They were some of the happiest user study participants we’ve ever seen,” he says. “They were living a life that would be hard to live for most of us. They were more disconnected, but they really enjoyed that disconnection. We’ve been thinking hard about how we can bring that to people. Creating a space for people to be OK taking longer to respond is one of the most impactful things we can do.”
Besides the problem with messaging, one of main issues the Digital Wellness software sought to address was compulsive consumption via smartphones. Google developed three principles help people “feel like they are in control, rather than just dealing with stuff coming in all the time”, Murphy says.
The first is provide awareness. “What we found was that people didn’t know how they were using their phone,” Murphy says. “Everyone is surprised at the number of unlocks they have every day.”
Even the internal Android team, when testing the feature, initially assumed it was broken and filed bug reports that the unlock number was somehow too high. This informed the second principle, which is to give people control. The dashboard lets you set daily timers for specific apps, while the ability to manage notifications in Android is now a lot more granular.
The third principle is to design responsibly. Murphy says many products measure time of use as a key metric, so are judged as successful if they can get users to stare at it for as long as possible, but this no longer makes sense. He believes user satisfaction is a better metric.
“Time of use made sense when we were all fighting for user attention. People had limited batteries and we were fighting for the difference between five minutes and 10 minutes of use per day,” he says. But now that people are using their phones for many hours every day, the old thinking doesn’t apply.
“We see that reflected in stats, where the longer someone spends using any single thing, the less happy they are with it. The industry as a whole has to recognise that.
“It’s about being happy with what you did in retrospect. If you spent all weekend scrolling through different social media feeds, and then on Monday you’re like ‘that was a good use of my time, I learned a lot’, then it’s great. But if you sort of sat back and had that ‘too much chocolate cake’ style moment, like ‘argh I shouldn’t have done that’; it’s about giving you that awareness.”
Asked about specific changes that could be coming with the next version of Android to further address all this, Murphy said that generally he’d hope to see “more seamlessness and less interuptiveness”.
“If you’re trying to do something, then your phone should help you do it. It shouldn’t try to distract you,” he says. “If you go to your phone with an intentional usage, there shouldn’t be a notification telling you to go do something else. And that’s where we want mobile technology to be.”
He breaks down the world of things you can do with your phone into consumption, core utility (like note-taking, or pathfinding) and creation, and says the current way of doing things really favours that first one.
“If we can make it easier to do the other two — create things, or get core utility out of your phone — that’s the kind of change that I’m excited about. That’s the kind of thing that makes phones and technology so powerful for people.”
Tim is the editor of The Age and Sydney Morning Herald technology sections.