Beyond the Screen: Designing Experiences to be Natural and Humanlike
Last fall, I downloaded an app to begin tracking the amount of time I spent using my phone. In an attempt to not taint the results, I planned to wait four weeks (without peeking at the app) to learn where I fell on the screen-zombie scale. By the end, I’d all but forgotten about my little study until a push-notification caught my attention as I was headed out for a run. The result was embarrassing: from the email checking en route to meetings (and everywhere else) to sorting through dining options, I was spending more than 6 hours on my phone every day (slightly higher than the American average).
With visions of the heart-wrenching video “Look Up” in my head, I spent my afternoon-run forming a strategy to slash as much screen time from my life as possible. My first task was adding the Billy Joel lyric “How thoughtlessly we dissipate our energies” to my lock screen.
Like the many others who have grown to be concerned about phone addiction, I took decisive action: I eliminated online shopping, deleted social media accounts, and used cookbooks instead of scouring the Internet for the perfect blueberry pancakes recipe.
I also had a deeper realization: the problem is not our reliance on technology — it’s that the way we interface with technology is distracting and getting in the way of some very basic human behavior. We can accomplish a lot with our phones but we seem to think we can do everything with them, and that’s limiting our ability to imagine the possibilities beyond a screen. We’re due for a natural course correction, something that’s happened many times before. When PCs were king, it took years to convince some designers, developers and leaders that they should be developing applications to fit a small phone screen, and that people will indeed use them (we now use the mobile web more than the PC web).
Similarly, our dependence on our mobile phones has a limit. If we focus on creating the best user experience, we must understand that this experience may not include a screen at all— but may instead be designed around an invisible interface. The shift is underway and the tools for designing these screenless experiences are being built — the Internet of Things surrounds us, virtual reality is becoming more common and improved AI allows machines to interact with us more intelligently.
But the shift isn’t purely technological — it’s societal. As we design for the invisible interface of the future, we have the opportunity to make our lives more joyful and human, present and productive. Here is why:
The Invisible Interface is More In-the-Moment, Human and Joyful
Some of what we do with screens inadvertently removes us from our environment rather than bringing us closer to it — think of being attached to Google Maps as you walk on the sidewalk trying to find a new restaurant. Screens, and our phones in particular, often add a great deal of friction to our interactions with the world. What if we could remove that friction so that, instead of being glued to your phone as you walk down the street, you, for instance, see an AR generated virtual path along the pavement. You’d be able to process the information while remaining present because you don’t need to split your attention between the physical and virtual world. Who knows, you may even encounter a human along the way and strike up a conversation.
Our need for that human connection could never be more pressing. Not only do Americans feel more fractured and divided than ever before, but you could argue that technology, as great as it is, isn’t helping the problem. Research shows that only face-to-face human interaction can create a sense of what Brene Brown calls “true belonging” (although technology can of course, through social media, help facilitate face-to-face contact).
Fortunately, unlike our phone screens, invisible interfaces — technology enabled by VR, AI, and wearables — has the potential to foster more connection to each other — and more joy. Part of the reason we enjoy reading books rather than reading a screen is, as Tea Uglow argues, we like “natural solutions.” We like things that stimulate the senses; things that “we might touch and move,” Uglow says. In order to foster a connection to our environments, it’s time to design artifacts, objects, and our everyday machines in ways where we’ll benefit from technology while not being removed from the natural world.
Screens Should Work in Concert with Other Interfaces
If we agree that we need to design from a less phone-centric mindset, let’s start thinking about how screens can work in concert with wearables, hearables, and smart devices, so that way we can still use screens and phones, but only for tasks they’re best at. Digital Sciences professor Brian Stein gives another example of how that screen and non-screen integration could work: a discreet wearable can record your notes during a meeting, which you can later review on your smartphone. While a smart device may be able to automatically upload data, we will often want to use our screens to edit and visualize that data.
We Can Stretch Our Imaginations Beyond Screens
Although our phones are still great for certain tasks (including calling), we’ve reached a tipping point where spending more time on our phones is not the most efficient, fun and human way to interact with the world. And many people are already starting to realize this, which is why apps that measure or regulate screen time are becoming increasingly popular.
But the phone still seems to be at the center, and remains top-of-mind for designers, developers and consumers. As we think about solving the next great or small problem, let’s not assume from the start that it will be accomplished via a mobile app. With the help of recent developments in AI, VR, and IoT, we now live in a world where our imaginations need not be limited to mobile phones or screens. Instead, ask this question: What’s the most human, natural way to solve this problem?
Personally, I’m excited to see what the innovators of our time can imagine and build beyond the confines of a screen. Both developers and consumers trepidatiously made the leap from PC to mobile, and I expect we’ll see the same apprehension as products come to market that leverage the next platform or interface. One of the driving forces behind Token was to create a seamless experience for people to exist in both the physical and digital world — we want to enable you to be you wherever you are and for you to experience that world with your head up.