May I Have My Attention Please?

How Apple and others can make time better spent, beyond just nutrition facts

For the last year or two, if you asked me the Contrarian Question — what is something I believe that most people don’t — I would have said that digital addiction is real and widespread.

I realize this is hardly a contrarian take now that headline after headline (and tech luminary after tech luminary) has bought this to light. But until the September 2017 piece in The Atlantic, and the subsequent Jana Partners letter to Apple, it seemed largely a fringe belief.

Digital addiction is a tricky issue, and it’s hard to voice concern without sounding like an alarmist, Luddite, or heretic. (Fearing technology is a tale as old as time, and even Socrates denounced the invention of written text because he thought it would make people more forgetful.) But I think we are undeniably in an era where things are more addictive.

Almost like classical economics, today’s computing and smartphone paradigm still assumes the individual is perfectly rational. Yet, it’s no secret we’re less than rational.

Since the dawn of the App Store, the lines between utility and entertainment have blurred in our lives. We have trouble with distraction, and studies show it takes 23 minutes to get back to our intended task.  And 10 years later, there’s still no way to take stock of how our time and attention is allocated.

That’s why I was floored to see Google make the first move at their recent I/O 2018 event. Sundar Pichai announced details for a special Android dashboard for users to track their “digital well-being” across platforms:

“In Android, we’re actually going to give you full visibility into: the apps how you’re spending your time, the number of times you unlocked your phone on a given day, the number of notifications you got. And we’re gonna really help you to deal with this better. You know, apps can also help. Youtube is going to take the lead and if you choose to do so, it’ll actually remind you to take a break. So for example if you’ve been watching Youtube for a while, it’ll show up and say ‘hey maybe it’s time to take a break.’ Youtube is also going to work to combine, if users want to, all their notifications into a daily digest.”

This is a momentous move among tech companies because it lended credibility to two big ideas:

  1. digital addiction is a problem (real or perceived)
  2. it’s a future liability, so it’s worth being proactive

In the US, Android has about 53% of smartphone users, so this Dashboard has potential to help at a massive scale, at least if users opt into it. But then there’s the other 45% of Americans with iPhones. Apple does not let users (or even developers) get insights into useage of apps. (Some apps like Onward employ VPNs to get around Apple’s walled garden.) But I’m optimistic because Google’s move puts strong competitive pressure on Apple to deliver a similar product.

With their combined dominance in devices and browsers, Apple following Google would be a big move. But I’m hopeful for something one further: a consortium. If most of FAMGA worked together to deliver a cross-platform tracker, almost everyone’s useage could be neatly tracked and itemized.

Now, I’m not holding my breath on this. But our digital lives are lived cross-device and cross-platform. Until most providers are on board, the data siloes mean any one tracker’s data is incomplete. In the near term, I worry the incentives aren’t there to make it happen.


Designing the perfect dashboard

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So what would the perfect “digital well-being” app even look like?

First, I think it needs context that makes the metrics truly meaningful. In the past using products like Freedom, RescueTime, and others, I’ve found time spent is a measure that’s far from perfect.

For example, seeing in our Dashboard that we spent 1 hour on doesn’t reveal anything helpful–I often read Medium posts at work, and sometimes for pleasure. The ideal dashboard needs to be very good at discerning “productive” from “distractive” content and behavior, down to the page level and interaction level. Machine learning could certainly help categorize this better. But as it stands today, the nature of knowledge work can be messy, and often involves social media or info-tainment to get to real answers.


The obvious parallel here is the Nutrition Facts label. It gives complete context into the food item at hand. Our behavior is certainly impacted by seeing a prominently-labelled calorie count. But if calories are your only metric, you’d be ignoring big indicators like Fats, Protein, food group, and so on. A dashboard that tracks just time useage is equally unhelpful.

One powerful voice pushing for “time well spent” is former Apple engineer Tony Fadell. His recent must-read piece pushed for a tracker that goes beyond just the facts. As Fadell wrote, we don’t know what the technological analog to a “vegetable”, a “protein” or a “fat” would even be. But getting basic tracking is the first step. And from there, Fadell envisions a Settings feature that automagically goes into “read-only” mode and diverts notifications:

You should be able to see exactly how you spend your time and, if you wish, moderate your behaviour accordingly. We need a “scale” for our digital weight, like we have for our physical weight. Our digital consumption data could look like a calendar with our historical activity. It should be itemised like a credit-card bill, so people can easily see how much time they spend each day on email, for example, or scrolling through posts. Imagine it’s like a health app which tracks metrics such as step count, heart rate and sleep quality.

With this usage information, people could then set their own targets – like they might have a goal for steps to walk each day. Apple could also let users set their device to a “listen-only” or “read-only” mode, without having to crawl through a settings menu, so that you can enjoy reading an e-book without a constant buzz of notifications.

As Big Tech is getting more public scrutiny, to me it’s a no-brainer. And this it’s especially a no-brainer for Apple, which is pushing to become a health brand and doesn’t have ad-driven business model to worry about.

But I believe big smartphone providers like Apple and Google can make the biggest dent here because together they control the system-level software for the majority of the world’s phones. Apps like Onward and Moment are imperfect methods that only get directional data on time allocation.

Going forward, context will be key.

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