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Google researchers say the tech industry has contributed to an ‘attention crisis’

(Morris Mac Matzen/Reuters) (Morris MacMatzen/Reuters)

Google released a new paper written by its own user experience researchers that delves into the reasons that 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 whether they're satisfied with a product.

Google chief executive Sundar Pichai told developers in May that the company is exploring ways to give Android users a way to experience the “joy of missing out” and to 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 their smartphone throughout 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 mobile conference Tuesday in Barcelona.

Google used the results of this study to help design its “Digital Wellbeing” tools, which are a part of the company's newest Android operating system and designed 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 — though 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 the best metric to measure 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.” But they stop short of suggesting how companies should do this.

The bulk of the paper focuses on why people think they can't disconnect from their phones, even if they want to cut back. The paper suggests that the reasons people are glued to their phones 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 responds to a message within about 20 minutes.

"But to meet this expectation often presents conflicts — distraction 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're constantly checking their phones to make sure they don't miss anything.

The paper's authors suggest that it would be helpful for companies to allow people to use their smartphones in a limited capacity — keeping some essential functions open, while muting everything else. (Google has implemented a “Wind Down” mode for the evening that does this.) Researches also suggest that companies could design their systems to prevent people from feeling as though they have to reengage with their phones once they've set them down.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Aranda said Google's current tools, now in an open beta, are mostly focused on giving information about phone use, as a first step to make it easier for people who want to step away from their smartphones to understand their use.

Aranda and Baig write in the paper that there should be more research into how well tools meant to limit engagement work. Google said in a statement that it's not announcing any other research at this time but that researchers will “continue their work in this area."