Great Tech? Less is More.

  • Caleb Bushner
  • VP of Strategy, Free Range

I love technology so much that I want less of it. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve spent years in tech and I’m keeping the smartphone, Sonos speakers, cloud storage and high-efficiency light bulbs; but what I really want is the quality of life that they promise to help me enjoy.

In light of the product announcements at CES 2017, however, I’m feeling increasingly at odds with a tech world that wants me to have AI-powered toothbrushes and mirrors with apps that redundantly point out my wrinkles.

 

The Internet of Things has many benefits, but it’s hard to imagine the world that CES is selling us, where we write on sticky notes with purpose-made printers instead of pens, and the simple act of making toast now requires an app. Just imagine how many apps you’ll need in order to achieve all the tasks that can currently be done in analog reality.

This all adds up to lazy “innovation” thinking that considers individual tasks outside of the context of the life in which people would actually be performing them. I can understand why — if you’re a product designer or business leader in a specific vertical, you’ve been told that the Internet of Things is surely the future, so businesses wind up going down the path of fallacious reasoning satirized by the Internet of Shit: “Why not put a chip in it.”

Why not put a chip in it? Because most people want to connect with people and ideas, not an ever growing array things with chips. Do we really need to hear about the weather from our phones, watches, speakers, alarm clocks, fridges, TVs, scales, AND mirrors? No matter how passionate you are about making mirrors, you’re missing the point when you try to put a chip in it just so it can take up more of a person’s time. When companies focus too narrowly on connected devices, it adds up to a life for people that can be more disconnected from what matters — quality of life.

 

In a world where adding a chip is expected, some technology leaders are starting to think about how to build tech that contributes to a better life, even if (or because) it means using their products less.

 

One such example is the Light Phone. The makers recognize that we often use our phones not as phones but easy distractions (“Surely there’s another cute puppy photo on Instagram since I last looked five minutes ago, right?”). Few people, however, are willing to go so far as getting rid of their iPhones. So they have taken a surprising angle: a phone that is dumb enough to fill your pocket with something that simply makes phone calls, but smart enough to do it in the form of seamless call forwarding so your iPhone stays out of the way except for when you really want it. The end vision is an interesting one: buy another device to work with your smartphone so that you use both devices less, not more.

Simple. Useful. That’s something to talk about.


As the Light Phone’s co-founder, Joe Hollier, told Techcrunch, “This project is really about a conversation we want to start. Is where technology is going really the way we want in terms of living our day to day lives in the happiest sense? [… W]e think that maybe we need to put the human first in tech again and think about what kind of tech will make our lives better in the long term.”

This mission is being approached from other angles, too. Moment is an app that you don’t use. In fact, it helps you avoid using all your apps. By patiently sitting in the background of your phone, Moment helps you see how you spend your screen time, providing coaching and simple information about how to use your phone as less of an attention hog. The Center for Livable Media advocates for designers to think about the metrics by which businesses actually measure their success. CLM founder Joe Edelman asks businesses to consider their “ability to manipulate us and keep [users] watching or downloading. When the success or appropriateness of a business or video is judged this way, it means people are being viewed as objects to affect the behavior of, rather than as agents with their own values, goals, and reasons.”

 

Where do we go from here? Tristan Harris has a vision for a world where businesses and people are aligned around the objective of maximizing the person’s quality of life. He suggests this can be achieved by designing for “Time Well Spent.” Tristan explains that the goal is for “technology that cares about helping us spend our time, and our lives, well — not seducing us into the most screen time, always-on interruptions or distractions.

The hard thing for many technologists to accept is that their technology is only one part of what makes a game-changing product. The vastly larger part of a product’s success isn’t about the product so much as it’s about the user, and their experience of the product in their real-life context. Technologists might applaud one another for impressive feats of code, but that is us talking to ourselves. It’s the user’s experience of the technology that ultimately defines success, and until our connected devices reflect this shift in perspective, we’ll continue to see companies making ‘stuff with chips’ when users don’t want chips, they want something to do a job in their lives.

 

Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves if we’re designing our technology for the sake of technology, or people.

 

If we’re designing for tech, then we are well on track for a world with multiple devices that can tell us the weather, but no devices that tells you when to put it down and pick up a conversation with your kid. If, however, we want to design for humans, we need to cultivate the empathy — and humility — to recognize that maybe the most valuable thing that our things can do is simply do its job and let us get on with our lives.

Want to learn more? Reach out to thrive@freerange.com.