Should Apple make a less addictive smart phone? According to some editorials the answer is yes. This nascent commentary harkens back to society's handling of tobacco. I remember the days of the Marlboro Man and Joe Camel. I remember Virginia Slims. My childhood awareness of these cigarette brands was from primetime television advertising. Today you'd be hard pressed to find the Marlboro Man lighting up on horseback during prime time, or any time. We decided, as a society, that there should be limits on how and when tobacco companies can market, and to whom. Why?
I am going to side-step the question of "what is a smartphone?" Is it a content delivery device? Or is it more? I have another question:
How do you feel when you're talking to someone and they start to look at their phone? How do you feel when someone is talking to you and you can't stop thinking about why your phone vibrated? Why do the most popular devices and social media platforms seem to be the ones that are best at getting our attention? Why are we compelled to stare at a 5" screen while the world is happening all around us? Finally, and most important - was this device designed to do this?
We may never know if designers build their hardware and software with the intentional goal of gaining and keeping our attention. I do know, because I have tried, that it is difficult to restrain the flow of notifications. Facebook, in my experience, is the most complicit. It seems like every time I turn their notifications off they find a new way to get onto my notifications list and make my phone vibrate. I have found it to be very near impossible to make it so that my devices only alert me about things I think need my attention. For a device that knows so much about me, my smart phone seems to be unable to determine if I should be interrupted or not. It has become a gateway of interactions engineered to make me think I'm experiencing connection but denying me the benefits of real connection. I can pass through the world with my ears covered and my eyes diverted. I can film an atrocity occurring before me and share what I have seen (through my phone) with the world. Without my phone I would have to face myself if I chose to be a passive bystander.
As an undergraduate psychology student I learned about Stanley Milgram's experiment on authority. It would be impossible to conduct such an experiment now in an academic setting. Further, his experiments are some of many taught as cautionary tales. The IRB now (institutional review board) exists as the ethical gatekeeper at most universities. They weigh ethical considerations and any potential harm that may befall participants in any experiment.
At Story+Structure we design things both tangible and intangible with one goal: to make the world a better place. Implicit in that "better" is "non-addictive." There are many considerations in the critique of a design. The form of a thing. The ease of use. How innate it is. Let's add some more:
1. Is it addicting?
2. Does it rob of us authentic experiences for simulated ones?
3. Does it affect our consciousness of the world and those immediately around us?
4. Is it intrusive into the sacred space of any personal, natural, or spiritual experience we are having?
To say something is "designed" means it was intentioned, not happened upon. It was considered, deliberated, and I think, shown to be better than what existed before. Design raises the expectations of those who use its result. It finds the often narrow passage between beauty and function. It is up to the challenge of not only making things pleasurable to use, but also making them easy to put down.
Fewer people are smoking these days. Most vices trend downwards after broad initial adoption by society then flatten out. Those within the smartphone ecosystem have a choice. Are they going to build an elegant tool or a mechanism to deliver vice. If we are honest, this is a choice of every designer.