Google Begins Adopting Calm Technology Design Principles — But Has a Way to Go

Digital Wellbeing is a new Google initiative which aims to help people “better understand their tech usage, focus on what matters most, disconnect when needed, and create healthy habits for the whole family.” It’s good to see tech giants starting to adopt principles I’ve been writing about and speaking on over the last few years. (Last year I worked with Microsoft on a recently announced program.) I’m especially thrilled to see Google adopting UX tweaks similar to those I’ve recently advocated for. For instance, this new feature for YouTube:

Remind yourself to take a break.

Schedule custom breathers as often as you want, pausing what you’re currently watching and encouraging you to step away.

As I argued on TechCrunch last month, leading social networks would do well to adopt a similar feature: “To address the cascade of emotional hooks created by timeline feeds, Facebook and Twitter should experiment with a pause button that imposes user-set resting periods — during which, users wouldn’t receive notifications or comments associated with their timeline.” And just last week, I was sharing my personal tips for reclaiming time and attention for our devices; so it’s gratifying to see Google implementing similar features into their line of products, such as streamlined e-mail usage, and customizing phone notifications.

Digital Wellbeing is a start, but it has a long way to go. There are many areas Google can make their products more calm. For instance:

Personalize & Streamline the “Take a Break” Option:

YouTube users now have the option to set a breather for intervals of 15, 30, 60, 90 or 180 minutes, but this is a problematic approach. 15 or 30 minutes will almost never be the right interval. We’ll get pop-ups right when we’re in the middle of something, instead of when we really need to take a break.

Our need for a break should be determined not by the clock, but our own personal needs throughout our waking day.

Users should be able to set a break from an easily accessed pull-up menu on Android or in the Google Chrome browser, not a buried preferences panel.

Create More Consent Around Google AI

My friend myrrh #sleeptalkswithsiri

Google’s Digital Wellbeing program includes a number of Calm Tech-related enhancements to its voice activated Assistant, such as an option to activate Custom Routines associated with their products. I would next like to see Google address the most anxiety-ridden aspect of their Assistant: The users’ nagging sense that the device is surveilling them at all times. (“How does it know when I say ‘Hey Google…’ if it’s not always listening to me?”) Many people hesitate to install an assistant in their bathroom or bedroom for this very reason. A friend of mine recently discovered that he was talking to Siri in his sleep — and that Siri was responding. (See image.)

To address this trepidation, I want to see more explicit consent built into the Assistant, and other AI devices: For instance, a hardware-based “off” switch with a reassuring orange light, and a “Google, stop listening” voice command that can only be manually overridden. I hope to see similar attention devoted to Google’s new Duplex AI system. As Anil Dash and Kevin Kelly have suggested, Google should strive to clearly communicate that people are talking with an AI, just as a camcorder uses a red light record button.

Lately, my concern will all our devices is one that Google’s Digital Wellbeing only briefly touches on — the problems inherent with blue light, especially its negative effects on our attention and sleep. I hope to explore those in more detail next week.

Until then, kudos to Google and Microsoft for this very positive start. With luck, we’ll see other tech giants — chief among them Apple, Facebook and Twitter — announce Calm Tech implementations of their own.

Design advocate, speaker and author of Calm Technology + Designing With Sound. Research Fellow at Institute for the Future.

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