Building an App with a Conscience

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Why Less Screen Time Can Mean Both Better Customers and Bigger Business

Most technologists obsess about the future. Whether it’s the newest programming language or the big development in artificial intelligence, we’re constantly concerned with what’s coming next. And yet, there can be a willful blindness when it comes to how our actions today impact the next generation.

Nearly all U.S. teens have a smartphone and almost half say they’re online constantly. The effects are dramatic. One study has shown that more than a single hour of screen time results in “lower psychological well-being, including less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks.” As the designers of their online experiences, we’re failing our kids.



What does that mean for the mobile app industry and their customers? Many apps choose a product design that encourages addicted customers. The greater the customer obsession with their app, the more usage, higher ad revenue, increased market share and more demand. Some have called this a casino model of app dev that thrives on customers hitting the refresh button again and again.

While the negative outcomes for kids have been well-documented in research, the adverse effects on business aren’t widely highlighted. When an app’s power users become addicted, the risks to the business include losing them as customers altogether — with no other options, addicted customers are forced to delete the app. An app’s reputation can also come under fire, especially when the casino model targets kids (see Snap streak and #StatusofMind). In the brave new world of app development, businesses must also help customers disengage from screens by adopting an ethical design approach.

The big players like Google and Apple have already made major strides in developing the tools and frameworks that allow customers to monitor and limit their screen time. Google’s Digital Wellbeing and Apple’s Screen Time have features like one tap do not disturb, hiding notifications and downtime periods. These features also enable parents to track their kids’ phones with activity reports and block their use when needed.

App developers can incorporate similar features to encourage moderation. Creating context-based downtime informed by the geolocation of the user is a great first step. That means if a user is at work or sleeping, for example, then notifications from the app are temporarily disabled. Shush and Wind Down modes on Android demonstrate how cues like the position of the phone and time of day can be used to silence or fade the screen. Another approach could be prompting a “take a break” alert if the user has been using the app for a long time. These sorts of features can make it easier for the user to unplug.

Additionally, app developers should make quality of engagement an important consideration in app design and interaction. Experiments from Instagram and Twitter to hide “Likes” to shift focus of users from popularity of the content to the quality of engagement, are steps towards healthier social media and likely a healthier society.



When addictive phone behavior is curbed by technology, there’s more room for brands to meaningfully engage with customers through other channels. The Cinemark app, for example, has CineMode, which rewards theatergoers with points for not playing with their phone during the movie. Others are going even further and making reduced screen time the centerpiece of the app. PocketPoints recognized a marketing opportunity in app addiction and rewards students for staying off their phones with points that can be redeemed at local businesses. Space, which was designed by Boundless Mind and uses the same persuasive technology that social media does, creates moments of Zen that generates a buffer between the user and their app addiction.

Though it may seem counter-intuitive for businesses and mobile app developers, making it easier for customers to disengage while incentivizing putting down the phone is the next big thing in app design. There’s enormous opportunity to guide consumers in healthy usage habits. By adopting a strategy that supports managed, mindful usage of your apps, you can tap into higher value customer engagements and develop a deeper brand relationship. Your kids will thank you for it too.

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