How can design make smartphones better for you?
Spending too much time scrolling has been found to have negative effects on mental and physical health, with social media use shown to increase anxiety and depression in young people. Apple recently introduced updates that help people curb their phone use – but what can designers do to reduce the impact of our technology obsession?
Screen addiction is a modern-day predicament. There’s no denying that smartphones have become integral, and even vital, to our daily lives. Checking your emails or the news, Whatsapping someone to tell them you’re running 10 minutes late, working out how to travel somewhere or posting updates to our social media profiles – it’s all done through our fingertips.
Research from Deloitte in 2016 found that people in the UK have “never been more addicted to their smartphones”, with one in three adults checking their phone in the middle of the night and when with friends, and one in 10 admitting to using their phone while eating at home or in a restaurant.
Social media could increase depression and anxiety
There are also concerns around the effects of screens on people’s health, particularly children and teenagers. Too much online activity, particularly time spent on social media, has been found to increase the risks of depression, anxiety and loneliness, while there have been concerns about how screen glare could affect people’s eyesight and ability to sleep.
With all this in mind, Apple recently released an iOS update that encourages people to keep track of their, and their kids’, phone use.
The Screen Time feature helps iPhone users monitor how much time they spend on their phones, while the Downtime feature means that parents can control how long their children are able to use certain apps, making them inaccessible after a set amount of time. The company has also introduced more customisation around notifications, allowing people to “switch off” for the evening by muting all pings and alerts.
How can graphics make screens easier on the eyes?
Digital and graphic designers have a role to play in helping people learn to use their phones in moderation, as well as making the time that is spent staring at a screen less harmful.
A recent set of guidelines published by the British Dyslexia Association (BDA) detailed how designers could create on-screen and print graphics that would make content easier to read for everyone – could a similar style guide be created that would make staring at a screen physically and mentally better for you?
Many of the design principles intended to help those with dyslexia would also help anyone using a screen, given that they improve readability and decrease strain on the eyes.
Designers have many ideas about how phones can be redesigned to enable people to use them more mindfully. Richard Ward, client services director at creative technology studio Engage Works, says that design and formatting of content are “absolutely key” to reducing the negative effects of screens.
“We should start with making things easier on the eye,” he says. “Using sans-serif typefaces rather than serifs, making sure content has break and end points and avoiding endlessly scrolling content, as is the case with so many of our news and social feeds.”
Get rid of the limitless scroll
Tessa Simpson, design director at graphic design studio O Street, agrees that the never-ending “scroll” of today’s online content, which means that you never need put your phone down, is a massive problem.
“I wonder if something that physically limits your scroll ability after a certain amount of time would be a way to create a new user experience,” she says. “You digest what you need and then put it down when you reach the ‘end’.”
Apple has gone part-way there in this function, releasing a “rubber band scroll” mechanism to iOS, meaning that when someone scrolls down to see a list of notifications on the home-screen for instance, they eventually reach the end and it pings back up the page.
“This makes scrolling harder as you get to the end of a webpage on a device,” says Simpson. “Perhaps expanding that to be an inhibitor in other apps would be good. I can’t see commercial companies doing this, so maybe a further iOS update that would let users apply it to apps themselves.”
Reduce “harmful blue light”
Like Ward, she says that there are basic graphics rules that can improve the readability of content on screens, including using lower contrast colours, off-white backgrounds and large type with more of a blue than a black tint. App designers should also limit the glare of the “harmful ‘blue light’” that phones emit, she says, by automatically reducing the brightness, particularly in the mornings and evenings.
But for designers to really make a difference in this area, there needs to be more research, she says. Smartphones as we know them today are only roughly 10 years old, so we are yet to realise the long-term repercussions of having our eyes permanently glued to a hand-held screen.
“We really don’t know the full and lasting consequences of too much screen time,” Simpson says. “Do we really know the optimum type size for a small screen? Or whether animations, and the overuse of different typefaces and buttons can be just a bit too much? All these things could contribute to the negative side effects of being constantly bombarded by information, with too much to focus on at once.”
Could we incorporate objects with tech?
Some designers have recognised the need to escape screens without entirely disconnecting from technology. AstroReality is a studio that makes educational apps that used augmented reality (AR), but are also accompanied by physical props to create a more tangible experience. Their products Lunar and Earth allow people to explore the history and geography of our planet and moon through a combination of tech and physical objects.
“The fact that the experience is paired with a physical, hand-painted model makes for a more well-rounded AR experience outside of just a screen,” says Joanne Dai, co-founder at AstroReality. “In this way, the experience can be beneficial rather than harmful.”
But Ward at Engage Works argues that, despite advances in new tech taking people away from actual screens, they may only be further feeding people’s digital addictions.
“While there are alternatives to screens altogether… some of the tech, such as virtual, augmented and mixed reality, doesn’t necessarily remove harmful elements,” he says. “Screens aren’t going away any time soon.”