Google has launched a handful of experimental apps designed to showcase how mental well-being can be built into digital products. The launch comes amid growing concerns over how smartphone and social media addiction may contribute to depression and loneliness, particularly in young people.
Google is touting its new Digital Wellbeing Experiments as a platform — something not-so-much designed to tackle digital addiction directly, but more a set of tools to “encourage designers and developers to build digital wellbeing into their products,” according to Google Creative Lab’s Emma Turpin, in a blog post.
Indeed, Google has compiled a “hack pack” PDF guide to getting started with building digital well-being tools, in addition to an open source Digital Wellbeing Experiments toolkit, which is available on GitHub now.
To show developers some of the ways they can think about building digital well-being into their own apps, Google has created five of its own for Android. Here’s a quick peek at what they each do.
Post Box enables users to choose when notifications are sent to their phone, so that they are not constantly bombarded with Gmail, WhatsApp, or Facebook alerts.
We Flip is kind of like a group “do not disturb” app, so that in social settings everyone who activates the app effectively decommissions (locks) their phone. Anyone can unlock at any time, but this will end the session for everyone — it’s designed to serve as a little bit of friction to discourage users from staring at their phones while having dinner.
Desert Island challenges the user to last a day by accessing only “essential” apps. The user chooses which apps they really can’t go without — such as camera, Uber, and Spotify — and then see if they can last the pace for a whole day.
Morph promises to help the user stay focused, by enabling them to create different “modes” so that only the apps that are relevant to that mode are active. For example, during “work” mode a user may only want to only access Slack, Gmail, and Dropbox from 9am-5pm during the week. Or during “holiday” mode at weekends, they may only wish to interact with Spotify, Uber, and Google Maps. This can also be activated based on a user’s location.
Unlock Clock is a pretty simple app — it’s basically a homescreen wallpaper that counts and displays the number of times the user unlocks their phone in a day.
As one of the “big two” in the smartphone operating system world, Google holds a great deal of sway in terms of how digital services are delivered and presented on its platform. In response to growing concerns over the impact that technology is having on people’s mental well-being, Google has rolled out a bunch of new features to Android in recent times — including app-limit timers and a wind-down mode. It is also now requiring Android handset makers to include digital wellbeing tools in their devices by default, which may simply involve using Google’s own services.
Elsewhere, Samsung, the biggest Android phonemaker in terms of shipments, has included mental wellbeing features for a while already, including an integration with Calm’s mindfulness and meditation programs. And both Facebook and Instagram introduced trackers to help users limit their time on social media. Separately, Apple offers a bunch of tools to help its users manage their screen time on iPhones and iPads.
Throw into the mix the myriad “stripped down” lightweight phones that are now coming to market, and it’s clearer than ever that there is a growing demand for “switching off” and focusing on the real world.
And that is why Google is now looking to target the development community. These experimental apps may prove useful in their own right, but ultimately Google wants to achieve buy-in from the design and developer community to ensure more people are trying to tackle the overarching problem.
“Anyone can use the platform to share their ideas and experimental tools to help people find a better balance with technology,” Turpin said.
There is, in fact, already a third-party experimental app available through the program. London-based design studio Special Projects has launched an app called Paper Phone, which lets users create and print a personal booklet of the key information they’ll need that day — maps, contacts, appointments, and so on, and take it with them as a sheet of paper.
Anyone else that is interested in submitting their own digital well-being experiment to Google are encouraged to submit their ideas here.