Tech Lite

It’s not a “going off the grid” or a “social media detox” as many are inclined to do. Instead, it’s tech’s version of the Slow Movement.

Maybe it’s the winter weather. Maybe it’s the political climate. Maybe it’s just 2017 and the future is the present. But lately I can’t seem to shake the firm grasp of technology on my life. I wear a heavy watch and yet I still get this vacuous feeling when there’s not a phone in my hand. I can’t be the only one.

Whether it’s the need to wake up scrolling through notifications that bombarded my phone while I slept, to balance my lunch fork in one hand with Reddit in the other, or the complete tragedy it is to sit down on the toilet and realize I forgot my Facebook Viewing Device™, I finally give in to the fact that life will truly never be the same as it was ten years ago.

Once upon a time, I was far more of a tech curmudgeon. I had my couple apps I liked but was resistant to new, trendy, and vaguely confusing platforms (I’m looking at you, Snapchat). Accepting my newer role in the industry as a UX designer, I trained myself to have a more open mind to all technology and try out apps even if I have no intention to become a regular user (I’m looking at you, Tinder).

But in the tech world, money is driven by time spent on a platform; of course the Facebooks and the Reddits and the Instagrams of the world want increasingly more of our attention. And they’re designed to make us crave them. And we do.

So here’s my dilemma. From a productivity standpoint, how do we remain active on our favorite apps without getting too sucked in? How do we find time to design rather than spend too much time consuming designs? Apps with excellent user experience have gone to great lengths to immerse the user so they lose track of time. I don’t want to boycott or anything, but I also want to gain back some of that time.

So I’m performing a personal experiment. Unwilling and unable to fully detach myself from my online social media presence, I am removing apps from my phone, one at a time, so that I can only browse Facebook or Reddit as a mobile website in my browser. It initially started as a hasty reaction on a day I felt particularly distracted, but after a week of dialing back my consumption, I started to realize the beauty of this experiment. Relying on mobile websites has been like stepping back into a time machine. Not to knock the Facebook mobile site, but its experience trails far behind the smoothness of its app. It almost harkens back to the mobile apps of 2008.

Facebook app in 2008 (source: http://blog.timolthof.com/)

Slowing down my own user experience — self-sabotage in a sense — has reminded me an important distinction between function and user experience. The mobile site provides me all of the functionality I need to stay up to date and aware of my social activities, but when I don’t receive push notifications, and when I have to manually refresh the page, and when photos don’t load smoothly, I find myself no longer dwelling on the website “just because.” When an experience is less inviting, it discourages loitering. It’s the digital equivalent of painting your walls a hideous shade of green to discourage non-patrons from using your bathroom.

User experience can be a time killer just as much as it’s a time saver. For apps designed for productivity, saving the user time and effort only promotes productivity. But for apps designed as diversions — the ones we all want to use to kill some time — making the experience too good can harm those without will power.

Apps have gotten great at filling gaps in our schedules, wedged into the free time we have waiting for a bus or standing in line. But last I checked, our days aren’t getting any longer and apps can only continue to compete for our attention.

How long do we have before we see a “Tech Lite” movement — one in which we stop optimizing for consumption and start optimizing for responsible balance? It’s not a “going off the grid” or a “social media detox” as many are inclined to do these days. Just like crash diets, those are temporary solutions to a continuous problem. Instead, it’s the tech version of the Slow Movement. Will we see a way to balance quick, shallow digital exchanges with the richness of in-person interaction? Will we see a blurred distinction between what we deem “productive” and what we deem “fun”?

What does a Tech Lite world look like to you?

UX Designer. Data visualizer. Dabbles in 3D Printing, Softball, Curling, and Trivia. University of Washington MS HCDE class of 2017. www.joebernux.com

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