The art of thinking about smartphone clearly

iPhone SE

iPhone SE

A smartphone has become an important part of everyday life. It's a powerful computer on the palm of our hand with so many great uses and convenience. It can solve a lot of problems while it can ruin our lives. Life can be made easier while life can be more difficult too!

There are so many articles about the ways of outsmarting your smartphone. I have thought of, and tried many different methods to achieve it. Instead of providing tips, I here raise three questions to let readers think about your smartphone clearly, as well as make use of it better.

① Why do we need to get information as soon as possible? Do we lose something if we miss it?

We are always trapped in notifications and news feeds.

We are always trapped in notifications and news feeds.

We easily get into the habit of reading different kinds of news in Facebook, Twitter and Feedly with their own news feed feature, i.e. instantly and frequently updated information gather in the first page of the apps. If we feel we 'like' the publishers, we follow it to include their updates in the feed page, to ensure that we won't miss every update so that we can know the world more, and more.

As we know those pages will change almost every second (if we follow so many publishers), we are always attracted to tap those apps icons and see what is happening now! We believe that accessing the news is easy and effortless. We also believe it shouldn't take us long, but the process can end up nearly AN HOUR! As a result, when we feel bored, the easiest thing to cope with that moment is to check the news, especially when a light smartphone is so near to us.

But the fact is, you never get every update, as news are updating so fast in this information age. When you feel bored, you just slot the machine and you don't read the words and photos in details. Do you think you clearly understand the world? Most importantly, some news are not included in the news feed page due to the algorithm which is claimed to address your areas of interests.

Do we really benefit in this reading habit, say understanding more about the world, the trend and ourselves?

Maybe. Think also whether we will have a dramatic loss in our life if we read them less and even don't do it? Certainly not a great difference between the two.

Benefit can be subjective while cost is objective! There are so many things that are more important than checking news so frequently. Time flies and will not come back. Distraction drives us away and we spend a lot of time to be concentrated on our tasks and projects again.

Delete content-consumption apps like Facebook, Twitter and Feedly.

You can choose to access the information on your laptops, or at least in the web browser of your phone. The long-term goal should be getting information in different ways, like reading books, visiting websites created by individuals and publishers, asking questions in person, field trips... instead of over depending on the news feed, letting social media companies to decide what they give you.


② Is convenience a must?

Since Industrial Revolution, convenience has been our core value, and smartphone design is no exception. Take iPhone as an example. The notification in the locked screen. Replying messages without entering WhatsApp. Raise to wake. Siri suggestions. Today's widget. Search engine with personalisation.

I don't deny the design mindset in terms of convenience, as it can help one get into habit. If we think we can do something without much effort, we will certainly do more. The widget of Evernote with a shortcut of adding new notes and search can let me write down my ideas and review them more often! As a result, I can get into the habit of taking notes. Thanks to the raise to wake function with the improved UI, I can snap the moment on the street much faster! (A gift to street photographers)

The argument made by some developers like Apple and Google is saving time. This is not false as they usually create a shortcut so that you won't take a lot of tedious steps every time, but the time different shouldn't be that great, maybe from 3 seconds to 1 second. It is too small to feel.

It's not saving time and having more life, but the less painful experience, and the effortless way of doing can make us do more. A Facebook app icon on the home screen can let you check updates much more. WhatsApp notifications showing on the locked screen cause users to switch on the screen more often to see if I miss some messages from my friends, especially with the raise to wake function. Yes, every time we save a few second, but doing more can compensate that, wasting a lot of time compared to the past.

Nowadays the companies have been introducing machine learning feature by learning (tracking) users' behaviour when using their services, aiming at continuously improvement of user experiences, i.e. more convenient. We know that when we search for some information and check news, there is an invisible assistant or agent 'helping' us.

There is no standard answer of whether these design values above is good or not, but most important there are two questions below to consider,

  1. Does a few more steps mean terrible? Our heuristic answer is always YES which results in turning on all the notifications and keeping all the apps in case we need. Convenience can bring more unnecessary visuals which can get one lost and distracted. But in smartphone case, it's not a big deal, and you will enjoy your life more by less checking your phone.

  2. Why do we need to be so quick and hurry? I take a street photo as the moment will not come back again. Will your friends unfriend you if you don't reply to their message immediately? Does the notification setting ensure everything is on time? How about if I schedule myself to check messages twice a day? Which is more important? Speed or reliability?

Turn off most notifications

That is why I turn off most notifications, including WhatsApp. I check the messages manually when I finish all my tasks. If I choose to be notified, I check my screen frequently, and my mind and focus is on the possible upcoming messages, which makes me undergo multitasking mode which is indeed less efficient. Sometimes I misunderstand my friends' messages and reply wrongly. The manual setting can let me handle things one by one, and I can read everyone's messages clearly.

Clock app is useful in setting goal of having YOUR time.

Clock app is useful in setting goal of having YOUR time.

Forest app is a game to help one concentrate on his life.

Forest app is a game to help one concentrate on his life.

You may say that I will turn on the apps more often just like the case of Facebook. I suggest that you need to find a way to track your behaviour. You can write down the time after using apps, or make use of Clock app to set the timer for the goal you want to be concentrated, or download an app called Forest with a game approach to help your productivity.

Convenience should be linked to your real need. It becomes the following third issue in this article.


③ What does a smartphone mean for you?

A smartphone can have thousands of uses, but we have to realise that we can't get and own all! We can't handle many things at a moment or a short period of time as we do have bandwidth, like RAM in a computer.

We need to ask ourselves the meaning of smartphone for us. That is, the most important ways of use to you. Everyone can have different answers based on different criteria. For the organizing consultant Marie Kondo, it can be simply a 'spark joy' matter. For others, it can be linked to one's life, or business opportunities.

Remembering that five years ago many people were forced to buy smartphones because of WhatsApp, the history tells us that following trend will never end our suffering. There have been Instagram, Snapchat, Pokemon and more.

'Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that's what you are seeking.'

As in The Black Swan said. You try to stop a series of pain but you will still have it in the long run.

Feeling painful is the first step but taking actions to get rid of it and live your own way should be the most important. For me, taking notes and photos is the top priority whereas keeping in touch with my friends is the least. Five years ago, I met a Couchsurfing host who chose not to own any mobile phone. She still had love relationships with her boyfriend, and different kinds of friendship in her life. No one will give up on you because you don't have a smartphone. If they do, they are not your friends you need to keep in touch with.

Thinking about the role of locked screen and home screen

The locked screen in iOS 10. Good for taking quick notes and photos.

The locked screen in iOS 10. Good for taking quick notes and photos.

Spotlight search for an app.

Spotlight search for an app.

I make use of the locked screen to meet my top priority. With putting the Evernote widget on the left and the default camera app on the right, I can take my notes of sudden thoughts and ideas anytime, and snap the moment on the street. If I really need to do or check something immediately, I can use the app directly in order to complete my task.

A home screen only shows the apps I need to go through every day.

A home screen only shows the apps I need to go through every day.

And I do think about the role of the home screen which can be open after unlocking the phone. It should be a place for me to review my work and reply messages in one time every day.