The Addiction Machine: A Deep Design Critique of the Smartphone
This essay was originally published in December 2019.
If you’re at all like the average smartphone user, then you spent about 1,186 hours on your phone in 2019. That’s 50 full days. Continuing on this course, you’ll spend one year on your phone for every seven years that you live for the rest of your life.
How did we get to this point? Why are these habits so difficult to change? And what can you do to take back control of your digital life? This article seeks to answer these questions, ending with a simple 4-step guide for radically redesigning your relationship with your smartphone.
You can’t get back the days and weeks and months that you gave to your phone in 2019. But you can own the fact that every minute of 2020 is yours to give to the people and projects that truly matter. If that sounds like a New Year’s resolution worth making, then read on.
The Design of Addiction
Imagine it’s 2004 – a few years before the public launch of the iPhone – and you’ve been asked by Steve Jobs to design the future of the cellular phone. You have no preconceived notions of what a smartphone does or looks like and you’re given a blank canvas to create whatever you’d like. There’s just one mandate you must stick to, the guiding design principle passed down by Jobs himself: this device must be designed so that people will spend as much time on it as possible.
How might you proceed? Maybe you’d start by considering the physical attributes of this device. Everything useful and interesting happens on the screen, so you’re going to want to maximize the screen-to-body ratio. In fact, what if there were no physical buttons at all?
Now for the software. If we want people to spend hours each day using this phone, we need to make it useful and relevant at every moment in a person’s day. It’ll be impossible to develop software for every possible use of this device… what if we create a marketplace where anyone can invent and distribute a new application? This will ensure that there’s always an app for that. And when there’s not an app, there’s bound to be a website; let’s include a mobile browser that can’t be deleted.
How should we organize all of these applications? We could create an organized file system. Or maybe it would be better if every single application was always displayed on the phone’s main screen, so that users are constantly reminded of all the things they can do on their phone?
How would users access this device? Access must be secure, yet effortless. A password is too cumbersome – maybe a thumbprint reader? Or what if users could unlock the phone just by looking at it? Maybe one day…
And there you have it: a hand-held universe of productivity and wonder that’s effortless to use and gorgeous to look at. Who would ever want to look away?
The Smartphone Reborn
The point of this exercise isn’t to accuse the iPhone’s designers of adhering to an exploitative design principle. The point is that you could have started with the goal of making the smartphone as addictive as possible and plausibly have ended up with the very device that you carry with you today. The smartphone as we know it was not inevitable. It is the product of a myriad of small choices made by a small number of individuals that – whether intentionally or not – have culminated in an object that is optimized for addiction.
What if we could turn back time? What if we could put ourselves in the position of that visionary Apple designer and imagine a device that is merely useful when we need it to be useful, rather than one that seeks to insert itself into every sphere of our lives? What if we could design a tool instead of a vortex?
You can’t turn back time, but you can do something else that’s radical and surprising: you can redesign your smartphone. You can do it today, and it will take you about 10 minutes.
The rest of this article is a 4-step guide to redesigning your smartphone around a new guiding principle: your phone should be a tool just like any other tool, one you use when it’s useful and otherwise leave alone. I’ll argue in future posts why I think that this principle is the right one. For now, I trust that it will resonate with some of you, and I hope that you find it as empowering and liberating as I have.
This 4-step redesign process will be done entirely by manipulating your phone’s settings – no jailbreaking or coding will be necessary. Many of these changes were inspired by Blloc, the minimalist smartphone whose designers started with the question, “what if you could use your smartphone without ever opening an app?” Since I’m an iPhone user, this guide will be specific to iPhone/iOS. However, I’m confident that many of these steps can be emulated on Android.
Step 1: Turn your home/side button into a greyscale toggle switch
Color has been used against us. App makers use A/B testing to figure out which color is most likely to lead to you tapping the latest notification (as it turns out, the answer is red). And the volume, intensity, and velocity with which colors move across that gorgeous OLED display is incompatible with your brain’s physiological limitations, leading to anxiety and inability to focus.
Setting your display to greyscale makes your phone less addictive and can reduce the anxiety that comes from overstimulation. But there are times when color is useful – for instance, when taking photos or browsing potential dinner spots on Yelp. Fortunately, you can turn your home button (or side button if you’re using an iPhone X or 11) into a toggle switch to easily swap between color-mode and greyscale.
To set this up, you’ll first need to activate greyscale mode. Navigate to Settings -> Accessibility -> Display & Text Size -> Color Filters. On the Color Filters Screen, toggle “Color Filters” to “on” and select “Greyscale” from the options. Next, set up the toggle button by navigating to Settings -> Accessibility -> Accessibility Shortcut and tapping “Color Filters.” You should now be able to instantly toggle between color and greyscale modes by triple-clicking your home button (or side button for iPhone X or 11).
Step 2: Delete distracting apps
Remember those 1,186 hours that the average person spent on their phone last year? Almost half of that was spent on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. So if the thought of deleting Instagram sends you into a panic, ask yourself one question: do you want to spend 22 full days of 2020 browsing social media on your phone? If not, then you’ll need to take concrete, intentional actions to avoid this.
Deleting these apps altogether is your best option. If you don’t believe me, then try committing to a 7-day trial run and see how it feels. If you really can’t stomach the thought of losing your dopamine-fueled Insta-high altogether, you can use your iPhone’s built-in Screen Time feature to set daily time limits for distracting apps. Here’s how to do this.
If you need an extra layer of accountability, you can designate a friend, coworker, or family member to set up a secret Screen Time Passcode so that only they can make changes to your time limits. The Screen Time Passcode can be activated and set in Settings -> Screen Time. Pick someone who you trust and ask them to be the keeper of your Screen Time settings, and only to reveal the passcode to you in a true crisis.
Step 3: Get rid of your app icons
This is the biggest change we’re making, because it represents a fundamental redesign of the smartphone user experience.
The default home screen layout – an unordered display of app icons – was designed to make it as easy as possible to launch an app. The designers went one step farther by allowing apps to grab your attention with little red notification badges, encouraging you to open apps when you otherwise have no intention to. This layout encourages you to hop mindlessly from one app to the next, turning the phone itself into a sort of meta-app to be browsed through whenever you’re bored.
Fortunately, the designers of the iPhone included a second way to launch apps using the phone’s Search function, which is accessed by swiping down from the middle of your home screen. This provides an alternative user experience that is characterized by intention and focus. It reduces the impulse to mindlessly browse through apps, empowering you to use your phone as a tool rather than as an escape.
Here's how I’ve set up my new home screen and app launching experience. Feel free to copy this method or modify it according to your needs.
1. I took the apps that I use almost every day and moved them all into one folder called “Daily” on Page 1 of my home screen. This maintains convenient access to apps that I frequently open without leaving them spread out on my home screen all the time. Note: I excluded my email app from this folder to control my tendency to compulsively open it.
2. Every other app on my phone lives in a folder called “Everything Else,” on Page 2 of my home screen. I never open this folder; its entire purpose is to get all of these apps off of my home screen.
3. To launch an app that’s not in my Daily folder, I swipe down from the middle of my home screen to pull up the Search screen. Simply typing the first 2 or 3 letters of the app usually brings it up as the first result, and it can be launched from this screen.
4. Useful utility apps live in my dock (Messages, Camera, and Phone) and in my Control Center (Flashlight, Calculator, Clock, Notes, and a few others), which can be customized under Settings -> Control Center -> Customize Controls.
Step 4: Disable Safari and delete other browsers
Today, it seems axiomatic that every phone should have a web browser. But this was not inevitable. The decision to put the internet in your pocket was made by a small number of people at a discrete point in time, and it was made on the assumption that ubiquitous internet access would improve people’s lives. This assumption was made in an age of naïve technological optimism. It has largely proven to be false, at least in developed nations.
The mobile browser is the foundation of today’s mainstream conception of the smartphone: the phone as an always-on device that mediates every aspect of day-to-day life. As long as there is a browser on your phone, your phone will not – can not – be merely a tool to be used when it is useful and ignored when it is not. Your mobile browser creates the illusion of ubiquitous utility: it makes itself indispensable by continuously inventing and satisfying a multitude of spurious needs.
Your mobile browser is an engine of addiction, anxiety, and depression. Your life will be better without it.
If you use a third-party browser like Firefox or Chrome, then you can delete it just as you would any other app. Safari can’t be deleted – the designers have chosen to make it a literally indispensable component of the iPhone. But it can be disabled in settings using Screen Time in your iPhone’s settings. To disable Safari, navigate to Settings -> Screen Time -> Content & Privacy Restrictions -> Allowed Apps and un-select Safari. To really do this right, you’ll need to pick a Screen Time Buddy to set up a secret Screen Time Passcode, as described in Step 2 above.
This system works because it is flexible. In a pinch, you can always download a third-party browser and then re-delete it, or ask your Screen Time Buddy to tell you the passcode and then set a new one. For instance, I ask my Screen Time Buddy (my wife) to activate Safari whenever I travel because I know I’m likely to need internet access on the go.
We enter the next decade of the 21st century with our eyes fully open to the smartphone’s addictive, depressive, and exploitative tendencies. The question you must ask yourself is simple: what are you going to do about it? Are you going to wait for the tech giants to have a change of heart? Or are you going to exercise your agency and take control of your digital life?
The only power your phone has over you is the power you give it. Nobody but you can decide how your time is spent; so here's to spending it well. Here’s to a year of intentionality, inspiration, focus, and joy. Here’s to redesigning your phone, and to reinvigorating your life.