Google Researchers Say Tech Industry Has Fueled ‘Attention Crisis’

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The Virginian—Pilot (Norfolk, VA)

September 10, 2018

By Hayley Tsukayama

Google has released a new paper written by its own user-experience researchers that delves into the reasons why we can’t put down our phones—and starts to explore what companies can do about it.

It also calls on the technology industry to reexamine the way it ties engagement to success, noting that capturing people’s attention is not necessarily the best way to measure their satisfaction with a product.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai told developers in May that the company is exploring how to give Android users a way to experience the “joy of missing out” and combat feelings that we’re all too tied to our phones.

For its study, Google focused on a small group of smartphone users and kept tabs on how they used the devices through a normal day. It also dug into 112 interviews from previous research to evaluate how people felt about their phone use.

Researchers Julie Aranda and Safia Baig of Google presented the paper at the Mobile World Conference this past week in Barcelona.

Google used the study results to help design its “Digital Wellbeing” tools as part of the company’s newest Android operating system, intended to help people curb their smartphone use. The paper provides an overall picture of the reasons people feel they have to be in constant contact with their phones. It stops short of evaluating the best ways to combat that.

It does, however, take aim at the basic way that Internet companies, including Google, have elevated engagement as a metric of success, creating an economy where attention becomes the most important currency.

“We feel that the technology industry’s focus on engagement metrics is core to this attention crisis that users are facing,” the paper says. “It’s important to consider alternative metrics to indicate success, relating to user satisfaction and quality of time spent.”

The paper focuses on why people think they can’t disconnect from phones, even when they want to cut back. It suggests the reasons are mostly social—something other researchers have said in the past—and tied to the “fear of missing out.” The study particularly outlines the pressure people feel to respond to messages quickly. Participants said they think etiquette dictates that someone respond to a message within about 20 minutes.

“But to meet this expectation often presents conflicts—distracting from what they were doing, taking attention away from the other people they were spending time with, or interrupting them from free time,” the paper said. The study also said that people are so conditioned to respond to notifications that they constantly check their phones to make sure they don’t miss anything.

The paper’s authors suggest it would be helpful for companies to limit how people use smartphones, keeping some essential functions open while muting everything else. (Google has implemented a “Wind Down” mode for the evening that does this.)

Researchers also suggest that companies could design their systems to prevent people from feeling they have to reengage with their phones once they’ve set them down.

Aranda said Google’s current tools, now in an open beta, are mostly focused on giving information about phone use, as a first step toward helping people who want to step away from their smartphones understand their use.

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