Can an Interaction Designer Survive Without a Smartphone?

Can an Interaction Designer Survive Without a Smartphone?

What I learned during a month unplugged
Jane Ha
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As an interaction designer, I have a love-hate relationship with my phone. On one hand, my job requires instant access to apps, prototypes, Slack... the list goes on. On the other, tech addiction is real. Even if I might try to ignore the invisible handcuffs that tie me to my phone, I was always reaching for it.

Until, of course, I lost it.

First came the jolt of panic, followed by furious digging through my bag, and slapping my pockets, the whole time chanting, “Please say I didn’t forget my phone!” There I was, standing just past the airport security checkpoint on my way to catch my connecting flight home from Japan, totally empty-handed. Bye, phone.

Once I stopped hyperventilating, I had a few hours strapped to an airplane seat to consider the following: What would it feel like to live without a smartphone?

Since I was already stuck without one, I decided to turn my predicament into a personal experiment: one month, no smart devices of any kind. Here’s what those 30 days taught me—and how the experiment made me rethink the way I approach design.

Less might be more

My first observation was that I was suddenly fully engaged with everything—my surroundings, the people around me, even that TV show that I thought I liked, but really just glanced at between text messages. I was pleased to find that conversations suddenly became much more meaningful. When I had my phone in hand, I was always subconsciously waiting for a buzz, and partially disengaged from the people in front of me. And when the buzz happened, I stopped listening to them completely. Without the added distraction, interactions became much more fulfilling.

As an interaction designer, I spend a lot of time creating user-friendly interfaces, but this experience made me wonder exactly how accessible things should be. Now I ask myself, are there elements that are competing with instead of enhancing an experience? Would a user benefit from something just a little less sticky?

Lose the escape hatch

Some of you may remember a time when you couldn’t just text your friend to say that you’re running late or *cough*cough* aren’t feeling well and can’t make it. We’re all guilty of it. The beauty of not having a phone was that it forced me and my flaky friends and family to pre-plan and be on time*. By removing the option to be late or back out, there’s much less to think about besides showing up and enjoying each other’s company.

When we’re designing technology, do we always need a back or undo button? How does that affect outcome and behavior, and can we use it to our advantage? For instance, with questionnaires, how do answers vary if there’s no way to change them?

*side note: Do look up where you are going ahead of time, because no phone = no maps.

It really, truly can wait

At the beginning of the experiment, I had a few phantom limb moments where I went to grab my phone to check tomorrow’s weather, or look up the definition of apocryphal, or text that random gif to a friend. In most situations, my first instinct was to whip out my phone. Not having access to everything forced me to slow my pace, and made my world feel a whole lot smaller, and, in some ways, less overwhelming.

In an era where you can shop for a pair of pants online and have it delivered to you within the hour, are there moments that can be enhanced by building in pause? What can a little friendly friction do to help slow things down to enhance and experience?

Automation isn't always rewarding

There’s no question that the smartphone affords us many conveniences—I’ve undoubtedly plundered every mobile subscription, delivery, and transaction possible. But streamlining every aspect of my life left me longing for those small moments of accomplishment that I used to get from figuring it out on my own. For instance, without access to ridesharing services, I found myself walking or taking public transit everywhere. Great for my lungs, the environment, and my wallet. The same goes for social sharing: Much of the reason we share online, is for the reactions we get in return. And by moving from an asynchronous share to a synchronous share, you’re rewarded by actually seeing someone laugh instead of an emoji reply posted 34 minutes later. Mic drop.

Just because we can automate, doesn’t always mean we should. The unpredictability of human behaviors is what makes the mundane more interesting, after all. How can we integrate these real life moments into the designs we create?

Since the big experiment, I’ve rejoined the flock and am now wielding a shiny, new phone with a notch in it. But I haven’t forgotten the lessons I learned—or how important it is for designers to get out of their comfort zone. And next time I need a little inspiration, I may just leave it at home.

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Jane Ha
Jane is an interaction designer with a notorious reputation for drowning her house plants in love. If she’s not whispering sweet nothings to her variegated rubber plant, she’s finding some other crafting hobby to obsess over, then discard shortly after.
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