Nivedit Majumdar Nivedit Majumdar

Google I/O 2018 and Android’s new Digital Wellbeing

I/O 2018 kicked off a couple of days back, and the most significant announcements came in the form of Google Duplex and Assistant, a smarter Gmail, and Android P. However, perhaps the most relevant headliner of I/O for me was Google’s take on Digital Well-Being, that brings with it app usage tracking, and alerts reminding you to take a break.

Google’s aim is pretty straightforward: to help people monitor and minimise the time that they spend on their smartphones, on specific applications. This move by Google targets specific nuances that we have become accustomed to: the ever rising need to check up on friends and family, respond to messages, or just watch many, many cat videos.

Digital detoxes are definitely necessary, and ‘time spent’ is now paving way for a new, more practical terminology – ‘time well spent’. And in this regard, I think Google is doing some pretty cool stuff!

CONCEPT RECAP: SMARTPHONE ADDICTION

Picture a world without an app where you can scroll endlessly. Picture a world without people constantly checking their devices, if it is to respond to a message, or even just unlock the phone, and lock it again.

If that was difficult to imagine, then blame it on big corps developing and designing apps and devices with only one goal: user engagement. Be it Facebook’s algorithms that take into account a feedback loop, or even simple concepts such as stories which disappear in a day, app makers are working on creating an app – as well as smartphone – addiction system which compels users to open up apps at least once a day.

App designers focus on one primary objective: make apps as addictive as possible. As Shashwat mentioned in his article on this subject, a feedback loop is involved in the entire process of making an application truly addictive. This feedback loop, according to Facebook, takes into consideration four primary goals: trigger, action, variable rewards and investment.

With increasing digitisation, and a rise in the number of people suffering from FOMO, apps and phones have become an indispensable part of our daily lives – so much so, that we can’t imagine a day without our smartphones.

And this is the problem that Google is trying to rectify.

GOOGLE’S DASHBOARD

In order to overcome smartphone addiction, the first step would be to be actually aware of the addiction in the first place. For this, Google takes into account app usage statistics, and displays them on a dashboard.

The dashboard – which is an app called, well, Dashboard – lets a user see detailed app interaction statistics. And not just that, it even shows the number of times a device was unlocked, how many notifications were received from specific applications, and how often the user actually interacts with the app.

And not just that. While making a person aware of his/her habits with regards to app interaction, Dashboard also provides the tools which would limit the app usage in itself. An app timer is part of the equation here, through which users can set upper limits for their app usage, and can even schedule reminders and alerts when they are using an app for a prolonged period.

There are some other features to this platform, too. For example, there’s Shush, a Do Not Disturb feature which will completely mute any notifications for a specific period of time. There are also controls for app notifications for certain time periods, and a Wind Down mode which will automatically change the colour scheme of a device to greyscale during bedtime.

Simple enough, but very effective. Digital Wellbeing by Google is quite easily the most practical solution to a problem that all of us face at certain levels, yet are unaware of ourselves.

HOW RELEVANT IS THIS MOVE?

Very.

Here’s the thing, smartphone manufacturers and app developers want to make devices as addictive as possible, but this often takes a toll on the day to day routines of an individual user. Facebook has infinite scroll, Snapchat has streaks, Instagram has hashtags. It’s quite easy for a person to lose time on these apps. And, on a very significant level, this is related to time tracking, and The Quantified Self as a whole.

This being said, privacy needs to be upheld as well. Phone OEMs and app developers will have to maintain a fine balance between the user’s privacy and data security, while at the same time helping the user curb smartphone addiction. Wired has a nice article on how the Digital Wellbeing platform actually came about, and I’ll leave the link here.

Curbing smartphone addiction, is the real deal. It definitely is a positive step, but will it actually make a big difference? Apps such as Instant already exist, but with Google implementing the Dashboard platform, one thing’s for certain: big companies are seeing the problem, and taking steps to solve it. It will be interesting to see on how many devices it ends up by the end of the year with Android fragmentation.