Part 1/3: The Problem of Attention

We live in a culture of digital distraction. Excessive daily screen time, sticky apps and cognitive overload are causing a crisis of attention and seriously harming our health and social life - so how do we alter the purpose of lifestyle technologies to focus on wellbeing?

*This post is also available in German | Hier zum deutschen Blog-Eintrag.

A Culture of Distraction

Studies show that we check our phones up to 150 times a day and spend up to 8 hours a day in front of screens. Although we constantly feel connected, the overload of distracting technology in our lives is causing us to lose touch with reality.

It might seem harmless to leave your smartphone screen-side down on the dinner table, but studies show that a mere presence of the phone decreases the quality and depth of conversations you have with your friends. A great discussion can devolve into “yeahs” and “ums” with just the buzz of a notification. Even the unconscious anticipation that you could be interrupted at any second pulls your focus and prevents you from fully being engaged.

Weakened face-to-face connections with one another is just one way in which our health and social life suffer as a result of digital distraction. Short term problems include an inability to pay attention, memorize information or manage tasks — resulting in reduced productivity and engagement in both the office and at home.

The long term result of overstimulation is that people feel anxious when they don’t have an immediate distraction. They fill every momentary ‘gap’ with some form of external input — be it games, news or text messages. 

However, studies show that these gaps are essential for reflection, mental health and creativity. Joe Kraus of Google Ventures goes as far as to say allowing our attention to be constantly pulled in different directions can cost us our relationships and our wellbeing.

At the heart of creativity, insight, imagination and humaneness is an ability to pay attention to ANYTHING — our ideas, our line of thinking, each other. And that is what’s most threatened. — Joe Kraus, Google Ventures

Instead of wasting our time, energy and attention on relatively unimportant interactions, we should be investing more on family, friends and creative projects. So how do we alter the purpose of lifestyle technologies to focus on wellbeing? The first step is understanding the problem.

We’ve become addicted to screens

The average person:

via Mary Meeker’s 2017 Internet Trends Report

The result of all this digital distraction is that you train your brain to anticipate interruptions — making it difficult for you to focus for even a brief period of time and engage in long-form thinking.

  • Studies show that someone who is distracted by incoming email and phone calls will experience a 10-point fall in their IQs — the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep.
  • 67% of cell phone owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts or calls — even when their phone isn’t ringing or vibrating.

The Brain Has a Limited Capacity to Process Information

The constant stream of information coming from our screens takes advantage of our easily distracted minds. Our brains are highly susceptible to both voluntary and involuntary attention demands — however, we are far more productive when we pay active attention to only one thing at a time.

Cognitive Overload

Cognitive load theory explains that humans only have limited brain capacity to process information and remember things (120 bits per second to be exact, and listening to a person speaking takes 60 bits per second). That’s why, on average, we can only remember seven numbers with our short term memory or why you can never listen to more than two people talk at the same time.

Imagine you are sending a text message while crossing the street. Suddenly a car starts honking and you snap to attention halfway through an intersection. That’s high cognitive load at work.

Modern life causes brain overload, study finds

Cognitive load is decreased when you process information through multiple senses. For example, when you hit a light switch, you use your eyes, ears, touch, awareness of positioning and also your motoric memory to perform this activity. On a smartphone, you lose all of that. That is because Graphical User Interfaces require you to process all information mainly through your eyes and a very reduced version of haptics. 

This means that when you check your phone, you mentally have to drop everything else you’re doing — a conversation, a task or a creative process — and channel full attention toward your sense of sight.

Multitasking is a Myth

Multitasking limits our ability to perform well because our brains are wired to switch between tasks rather than perform several tasks at once. By shifting rapidly from one thing to another, we interrupt our train of thought, hindering our work flow. Our productivity goes down by as much as 40% when we’re doing several things at once.

The myth of multitasking

The bigger problem is that multitasking isn’t just unproductive, it’s stressful. Interrupted performance causes people significantly higher stress levels, frustration, workload, effort and pressure. It can also lead to chronically raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol — making us more disposed to aggressive and impulsive behavior, as well as raising our risk of cardiovascular disease. 

In short, our bodies and our minds are suffering as a result of multitasking but with no positive gains in return. 

Apps Have Been Designed as Attention Suckers

It is no surprise that the objects we surround ourselves with directly impact our feelings, actions and health. Unfortunately, most products are designed for ‘stickiness’ or to catch our eyes so that we use them more frequently — rather than being devised with our wellbeing in mind.

 

These ‘sticky’ products don’t just allow distraction; they promote it. One example is the Twitter notification design. When you open Twitter, it takes a short amount of time until the number of notifications are shown. This is not due to technical errors but deliberate design choice. It has the same effects as a slot machine —  tension is built up while we wait and then dopamine rushes through our brains when we get a result. We become addicted to this process and can’t help ourselves from coming back.

One of the main reasons why products are designed this way is because many business models rely on this psychological effect of delayed gratification. The more time spent with your product, the more ads you can show to people for example.

 

We Need To Fundamentally Change How We Design Products

All in all, the overwhelming negative side effects of digital distraction —   ranging from a growing inability to share our undivided attention with others, separate work from private life, for children to learn empathy and reflect thoughts (which is critical for maintaining mental heath and creativity), and even addiction and withdrawal symptoms — are staggering.

There are even more issues that come from the design of screens themselves. In order to solve problems like accessibility, time to action, cognitive load, muscle strain and limitations in human capabilities, we have to start designing more strategic digital tools. 

Lets Ask More From Our Technology. 

That’s the problem we want to tackle at Senic: How can we shift design away from grabbing attention and design technology that has truly valuable benefits for people and prioritizes human wellbeing?

Stay tuned for next week when we discuss how to begin designing not for stickiness — but for wellbeing. 

In the meantime, check out our previous posts for more information about how we think about technology beyond screens and the future of computer human interaction.

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