One of the big themes to emerge from Google’s recent I/O conference was Digital Wellbeing—the notion that technology should be a positive force in our lives, and that we need ways to disconnect from apps when they suck up too much time or distract us in other ways.
Google is taking the idea seriously, and developers should, too. The fact that the company is encouraging people to spend less time with its services should be a wake-up call that every developer needs to think carefully about how they design, build and test their applications.
To understand why Google’s digital wellbeing initiative is significant for all developers—not just those building for Google platforms—it’s helpful to look at some of the features announced in support of digital wellbeing, many of which are coming in the next version of Android.
The first is the app dashboard, which will allow users to see at a glance how much time they spend on their phone, how frequently they use different apps and how many notifications they get. Android also will provide new options for silencing notifications, and easier ways to turn on do not disturb mode.
Another new feature is an “app timer,” which allows Android users to set limits on how much time they spend in an app. When you reach your daily limit, the app icon is greyed out to remind you not to use it again. Google’s YouTube app is getting a similar timer that reminds you to take a break after an hour’s continuous viewing, or however long you choose to set it for.
It was unthinkable a year ago that Google would encourage people to take a break from their smartphones, since mobile ads are one of the primary ways it makes money. But times have changed, and Google’s digital wellbeing initiative reflects a wider public awareness that technology is not an unbridled force for good.
“We’ve reached an important inflection point in computing,” CEO Sundar Pichai said at Google I/O, “and it’s made us even more reflective about our responsibilities.”
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella expressed a similar sentiment at Microsoft Build, calling for greater responsibility in the technology industry. “None of us want to see the future that Huxley and Orwell imagined,” Nadella said, referring to dystopian authors Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.
So what does this mean for developers? It means we need to have a greater awareness of the impact the technologies we build will have on users, and to provide the best possible experience with everything we do.
That means we can’t bombard people with alerts and notifications just to make them spend more time in our apps. People are tired of the constant nagging, and those tricks now work against you. We also need to maximize ease of use, so users can accomplish what they need to do quickly and move onto the next task. Don’t be the app that makes people think, “I waste too much time in this software; I’m setting the timer.”
Most of all, developers need to provide the very best user experience they can. There were 3.5 million apps in the Google Play store at the end of last year, so there’s no shortage of choice about which to use. If your software is buggy or unintuitive or triggers too many alerts, your app will be among the first to be silenced or uninstalled.
Google’s focus on digital wellbeing has raised the bar for all of us, and that’s a great thing. But it means developers need to redouble their focus on the user experience. People don’t unquestioningly love their phones anymore; there’s greater awareness of the downsides that constant app usage can bring, and developers need to think about this changing environment as they design, build and test their software.