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Overload - Issue #3

Overload - Issue #3
By Overload • Issue #3 • View online
Some people claim that technology overload is not a thing. My advice to them, in a weird turn of events, is to look at Simon Cowell.
Yes, that’s right, our lord and saviour, the man who brought us the famous TV franchises The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, gave up his phone 10 months ago and he says it’s made him a happier person. He is the hero of our time and I for one appreciate his entry into this crowded and, at times, heated debate.
The fact that a figure like Cowell (who is super famous in the UK - I’m not sure about elsewhere) has given up his phone and the fact that that is a news story is symbolic of the richness and liveliness of this debate. The overload conversation is everywhere you look. 

Growth hack: a personal experience
I have a confession to make. I accidentally bought a Nintendo Switch. Accidentally, on purpose. It was an impulse buy. Oops.
If you don’t know what the Nintendo Switch is, it’s a game console that can be used handheld, connected to a TV, or in a table-top mode with a detachable screen. It sounds totally insane, but I’d heard so much good stuff about this device from friends that I decided to buy one myself.
I was sceptical (which is weird, given I just dropped a significant amount of money on this thing, but welcome to my illogical life) but I almost instantly fell in love with this thing. It’s charming and simple and very weird, in the best way.
But there’s also another weird quirk. I only noticed it recently, but unlike smartphones that focus on growth hacking and getting you to use them all the time, Nintendo Switch puts almost no effort into tricking you into coming back. There are almost no psychological hooks here. Honestly, that’s incredibly refreshing and I think makes up a large portion of why I love the Switch so much.
I’m not sure if Nintendo did this on purpose - sometimes the best features are actually unintentional goofs - but this device never clamours you to spend more time on it. There are no red icons that bounce to remind you to play a certain game. There are no bleeps and bloops to tell you to pick up the device if you’ve been having a busy week.
All of that means you feel detached when you’re using it. In a good way. It’s growth hacking through not growth hacking. And it proves something crucial: using psychological tricks to build habit-forming products is absolutely optional. If your service or product is compelling enough,  people will (spoiler) be compelled to use it. Take note, technology industry. Sometimes I guess it’s best to trust users to like you without manipulating them. 
Apple takes a stance
I wrote previously about how the concept of Time Well Spent is taking flight, and predicted that digital wellbeing would be high on the agenda of Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference.
In the last few years, Apple has made a point of positioning itself to be on your side. You’ll remember back in early 2016, Apple was at the centre of an encryption debate, during which it stood its ground as the FBI tried to force it to create a new version of iOS. The version of iOS would hypothetically compromise the security of its phones, so Apple declined. In the aftermath of this dispute, Apple made a point of highlighting how every single feature was built with privacy in mind. It took the moral high ground.
And it turns out that digital health is next on the list. Apple has taken a stance on it.
Just a few weeks ago at its own developer conference, Google placed an unexpected emphasis on Time Well Spent and digital health. It was great to see Google taking a lead and for whatever reason, I was a little wary that Apple would drop the ball on this.
In iOS 12 at least, Apple has launched 4 new features to help users be more aware of their time using technology:
  • Screen Time - a feature that shows you lots of fancy charts and tallies of things like how much time you’re spending in an app, how many times you unlock your phone in a day, and more.
  • Time Check - part of Screen Time is the ability to set limits for how long you use an app each day. Apple calls this Time Check, and once you hit the limit, you’ll be shown a screen that will nudge you to stop using the app, or let you keep using it for a little bit longer.
  • Notifications - Apple evidently realises that part of the feeling of overload is partially due to a firehose of notifications (pro-tip if you can’t wait for this software release: turn them off manually). Apple is updating notifications to make it easier to switch them off quickly, and is also grouping notifications together, which makes that whole screen less chaotic.
  • Do Not Disturb - this has been a part of iOS for some time now, but Apple announced significant changes to Do Not Disturb at WWDC. You can now turn DND on for a set time, until you leave a set location, or until an event in your calendar ends. This is smart, and hopefully it’ll allow me to detach more easily.
Honestly, this is decent progress, especially in terms of what campaigners (and Apple investors) have been asking for. But some things do not add up. The biggest question is if this is so important to Apple, then why isn’t it a key facet of everything it does? Why did we not see any of these features on Mac, or even Apple Watch? In fact, there was a direct mismatch between these genuinely useful features for iOS, and the features announced for Watch.
On one hand you have Apple telling you it’s important to be aware of how much time you’re being sucked in to your apps, and on the other you have Apple making it effortless to stay connected while at the gym, and adding a feature that literally interrupts you at any given moment with a fucking walkie talkie message. It makes no sense, or at the very least discounts what it’s just said minutes before.
And this is where, weirdly, Google nailed this stuff when compared to Apple. More broadly, I think Google is slowly perfecting how to tell a story about how you should use its products. It has a coherent narrative. At I/O, Google added Time Well Spent to that narrative. Google made it a core feature - with more bells and whistles than Apple announced at WWDC - and it absolutely made sense.
Comparatively, it seems like Apple saw some news articles about people complaining about being hooked to their phones and threw something together. I’m sure this is the start of a journey, but Apple can do more. Hopefully, in time, they will.
For most people, the feeling of being out of control is easy to fix. I think the biggest issue with tech overload is you don’t realise it’s happening until you’re affected. Because most people don’t realise the issue - at least in a proactive way - the features that both Apple and Google recently announced are really important. I think they actually do a lot to help the issue, at least as a stop gap.
But as time goes on, we’ll need people to design responsibly from the get-go, not just rely on vendors like Apple and Google to sweep the psychological manipulation under the carpet. 
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