Android Background Service (In Progress)
Android Background Service (In Progress)
Animation by Carver Koella
As part of B-Reel’s research & development initiative, I proposed an exploration of a question that occurs to me as I catch myself or my friends mindlessly scrolling our devices, and equally when my own design file for a mobile experience resembles a lineup of CVS receipts. What if I could translate the amount of content I scroll daily into a physical distance? What if I could stroll my scroll?
This gave way to broader questions about the time we spend on screens, which today, are popularly addressed as wellness questions. From this angle, measuring screen time seems to align with the concept of a quantified self that permeates tech work culture — the view that our bodies and minds are engines that can be optimized for enhanced performance.
According to tech writer Arielle Pardes, the digital wellness movement comes from a Google program manager Tristan Harris, who in 2012, circulated a memo titled, Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention. His slide deck calls for Googlers to ask deeper questions than, “Why don’t we make it buzz every time you get an email?” He became Google’s first ethicist and later founded the research initiative Time Well Spent, now called the Center for Humane Technology.
Against the backdrop of the infinite scroll’s rapid rise, we started to see the scaffolding of ethical frameworks. And while it seems an awareness of the negative impacts of screen time are now more mainstream, the reaction to this knowledge varies. Legislators have proposed bills to ban endless scrolling and autoplay, while surfacing usage data is becoming a standard software feature for mobile operating systems and digital products alike. Like going carbon neutral, if you operate at scale, it’s your responsibility to offset the negative impact of your operation.
In screen monitoring tools for Apple and Android, data about time spent, number of pickups, and notifications are packed into lists and charts reminiscent of diet or exercise monitoring dashboards. They also offer a few user-defined metrics to minimize distraction, like scheduled downtime or specific app limits. Outside of factory software features, a handful of third-party apps, like Moment, take on a more active coaching role and show phone usage against other projections, like the percentage of your waking life on the phone. But both factory and third-party tools exploit our compulsion to actively (if mindlessly) engage with devices while screen time reminders contribute to the original problem of distracting (if chemically rewarding) push notifications. Here’s the paradox of designing digital products through a wellness lens. Monitoring screen time begets more screen time.
And no, this isn’t the part where I explain how I trained a family of hawks to swoop down and grab your phone when you’ve scrolled too much. But I did come up with a few basic requirements to guide the initial design process. First, to limit time spent navigating pages data points, the outcome would need to feel like a single-screen experience. No secret dashboards tucked in side navigations. No settings. No scrolling, of course. Second, visuals should almost feel like a wireframe, with the lightest touch possible — it should feel undesigned without specific shades of blue triggering emotional responses. Third, remember that the goal is to reflect a behavior — not necessarily change it. But if that results in behavioral change, great.
The primary visual element of Stroll is a pill-shaped ring, which is a metaphor for a 400m track. The navigation consists of tabs running below and above the main view. Here, users can toggle between views — a track, a Google Map, or an AR mode — and different times — today, the past week, or the total since downloading.
As I moved forward with this approach, it seemed to taken on the same problems I observed with Moment and Screen time — it required too much engagement. Furthermore, the success of this approach depended on the ability for Android to access data from scroll-heavy apps like Instagram and Facebook, which isn’t currently feasible for security reasons. It would also be difficult to calculate the resolution differential across different screen sizes.
I worked with some creative technologists in the studio to determine that we can access the number of taps (or scroll gestures) globally. So, as a final effort to approximate a scroll distance, I created a multiplier that approximates a distance scrolled per tap (DSPT). To get this number on the fly, I created a fake social media platform called Eggstagram, and asked 20 people to scroll it as they would Instagram.
I measured how far they got within one minute and calculated a multiplier per person, and then averaged these numbers together to approximate that people scrolled about 3.7 inches per tap. This resulted in a simpler sketch of an alpha, which elimiated the map and AR modes.
After this, I realized that I had been reverse engineering the concept to fit with technical limitations instead of building off what is technically feasible. So from here, I took a step back, and rethought the metaphor based on the knowledge that we can create a background service that measures taps, globally. Rather than it being an app, it should run as a background service — or basically a wallpaper. This wouldn’t require active engagement from the user — it would just serve as a reminder as they switch from app to app, or pick up their phone for the first time after a long scrolling session. In the first example, titled Bust, a fragment of a bust is subtracted from the model with every tap. In the second example, the user simply digs a hole with every tap.
I am continuing to explore the realm of digital wellness, and am working with a creative technologist to create an alpha for a wallpaper that advances these concepts.