digitalwellbeing.orgHow to thrive in our hyper-connected world

Google’s Vision doc for digital wellbeing (deck and transcript)


Here’s the internal Google presentation and full transcript ‘A Call to Minimize Distraction and Respect Users’ Attention‘ that kicked off Google’s new focus on digital wellbeing that features in the latest mobile OS Android 9 (Pie).

Android Pie, with the new Android digital wellbeing dashboard, may be new (August, 2018) but this Google deck on digital wellbeing dates back to 2013, and was created by design ethicist Tristan Harris who was then at Google. Android Pie can be seen as the culmination of 5 years of subsequent rumination and research at Google on digital wellbeing.

The deck reads like a designer’s Cluetrain Manifesto, with the core message that digital wellbeing should be about minimising digital distraction, respecting people’s time and attention, and being sensitive human biases and vulnerabilities.

Whether you buy into Google’s new vision for digital wellbeing (“Great technology should improve life, not distract from it”), or dismiss it as a pre-emptive PR move to dodge a “Big-Tech is the new Big Tobacco” bullet, it’s worth a read as one of the most cogent cases for integrating digital wellbeing into digital design. 


A Call to Minimize Distraction and Respect Users’ Attention.

by Tristan Harris.

I’m concerned about how we’re making the world more distracted. And my goal with this presentation is to create a movement at Google to create a new design ethic that aims to minimise distraction and I’d like to get your help.

Distraction matters to me because time is all we have in life. Time is expanded and contracted when we’re in flow vs. distracted. You’ve experienced this before. More can happen in single day travelling in a remote country, than in months of your work life. Or in one hour of dancing.

Yet hours and hours can mysteriously get lost here [Gmail inbox]. And feeds that suck huge chunks of time away here [Facebook feed]. Weakening our relationships to each other here [people phubbing each other]. And destroying our kids’ ability to focus here [teen’s texting]. (Teens 13-17 now send 4,000 texts/month, once every 6 minutes awake).

And today, technology companies profoundly influence where all this attention goes. Infact, never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25-35), working at 3 companies [Google, Apple, Facebook] had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention.

Think about that for a second. We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right [Stat: 28% of accidents involve talking, texting on cellphones – Washington Post]. We need to be more rigorous about these questions than “Why don’t we make it buzz your phone every time you get an email?”

Now, you might be saying wait a sec, don’t users make their own choices here? Not always.

  1. We need to acknowledge that humans have certain vulnerabilities…
  2. Those vulnerabilities can be amplified and exploited…
  3. …And the design of products we make can do this, and make people act impulsively 

Everyday, those vulnerabilities make us act against our better judgment.

Vulnerability #1: Bad Forecasting (aka that won’t take long)

[Screenshot of Facebook notification ‘Marc Haumann tagged a photo of you’ with ‘See photo’ and ‘Go to Notifications’ options]. 

What question are we really being asked? “Want to see this photo of you?”. Or more like “Do you want to interrupt what you’re doing and spend the next 20 minutes on Facebook?”

“Share this article” [means] “Make ~26 friends spend 10 minutes reading this”

“Watch a related video” [means] “Don’t sleep til 2am, 3am. Feel sick tomorrow morning. Wake up feeling exhausted. Regret staying up all night watching YouTube.”

Instead, what if we designed products to help users forecast the consequences of certain actions?

Vulnerability #2: Intermittent variable rewards (aka slot machines)

Intermittent (vs. predictable) rewards are the most addictive, and hardest to stop (it’s why slot machines make the most money at casinos).

Are we deciding to pull for new email [‘pull to refresh’ command] or do we do it to feel the intermittent rewards? Are we swiping two fingers to scroll or play the slot machines infinite feeds to see what we’ll get?

These are attention casinos… because the house always wins. We spend lots of time – are we getting the same value back?

Instead, what if we designed to minimise the presence of intermittent variable rewards, and reduce addictions?

Vulnerability #3: Loss-aversion (aka fear of missing out)

Suppose we actually wanted to stop checking all this stuff. Loss-aversion won’t let us because we’d be terrified of missing something important. So we’re forced to live as if every message could be this “Hey nuclear bomb just exploded over your house. You may need to…” Instead of this “Checkout this kitten on rollerblades! LOL”  Keeping us on a treadmill of continuous checking.

Instead, what if we designed to give users confidence that they could disconnect more often, and not miss something more important?

Vulnerability #4: Fast vs. Slow Thinking (aka Mindful vs. Mindless behaviour)

Humans make different decisions when we pause and consider vs. when we react immediately. When access to the next hit is too frictionless, we lose the ability to consider before acting.

When scrolling is frictionless, we don’t think before we flick to see what’s next… Or when it’s so frictionless, we don’t think before we grab our phone after it buzzes. Or so frictionless, we don’t think before getting a snack after an urge.

When we lose that moment to consider before acting on our impulses, we lose what sets us apart as thinking humans.

Instead, what if we designed to help users be fast and efficient, while leaving enough friction for users to pause and considers? Just like Google makes unhealthy food available, but puts them inside jars and slightly out of sight (in other words, behind a speed bump).

Vulnerability #5: Stress and Altered States (aka “I’m not in the best state of mind to decide”)

It’s not just how technology changes what we do, it’ also changes our physiological state.

We actually stop breathing when we read our email (an effect known as “email apnea”). Our sympathetic nervous system is activated causing our liver to dump glucose and cholesterol into our blood. Our heat rate increases, and our body prepares for a fight or flight response.

And all that happens between when we read our 1st email and when we read our 10th email. And when we’re stressed or distracted, we’re more likely to succumb to immediate urges. Do we really know what we’re doing to people?

Instead, what if we designed to minimise stress and create calmer states of mind?

The problem is successful product compete by exploiting these vulnerabilities, so they can’t remove them without sacrificing their success and growth, creating an arms race that course companies it steal people’s time.  A tragedy of the commons that destroys our common silence and ability to think.

So, what’s the solution to all this?

As a former entrepreneur, I can say that niche startups are too small to tackle this challenge. Change like this can only happen top-down, from large institutions that define the standards for millions of people.

And [at Google] we’re in a great position to do something about all of this.

  • We set the notification standards on >50% of the world’s mobile phones (4 trillion notifications sent last year on iOS alone).
  • We shape > 11 billion interruptions to people’s lives everyday… (this is nuts)
  • Million of knowledge workers spend 1/3 of their day in our email product.
  • Hundreds of millions of people live in Chrome everyday

And we have fortunate incentives. Unlike many companies, our primary business mode is fulfilling human needs (searches) and getting people on with their lives. Not stealing more of your time

Just like we trust our doctors to do what’s best and healthy for us, who swear by the hippocratic oath to use their knowledge ethical and do no harm…

And just like we trust far meters to sell us safe and healthy food and ask careful questions before making decision that could affect our health because all we can do is buy what shows up at the supermarket…

Consumers trust us to make conscious decisions since we choose the systems and defaults that shape their lives.

We already care about speed and productivity and helping users get sh*t done, let’s also care about minimising distractions and interruptions.

  • We can design to reduce the volume and frequency of interruptions.
  • We can design to be respectful about when to notify users – let it wait, unless it’s important.
  • We can design to keep users focused, but putting temptations further away when they are trying to accomplish goals. 
  • We can batch up notifications and messages into digests by defaults, instead of one at a time.

Clearly, these are thorny issues. There are tough moral questions, competition-driven industry pressures and nuanced human psychology factors.

But just like we had a team to standardise our design aesthetic across the company [Kennedy], we should have a team to standardise our design ethics and define best practices to minimise distraction.

But we can’t wait any longer to figure it out. Join the community “Attention-respectful Googlers” (now 1500+ Googlers and growing) or go visit go/attention-respectful.

Send in the most distracting aspects of products in your life (screenshots and descriptions are fine). How would you change them?

How could we do more to respect the user’s attention?

And share this presentation with your co-workers… start a conversation. go/distraction.

Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
Join the discussion

Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.