Go ahead and write off 20 percent of your day. You’re going to spend it gazing into your phone.

On average, we spend three hours and 16 minutes every day-a fifth of our waking hours-staring at our pocket computers. We consult them 221 times from morning to night, once every four minutes.

As a mobile designer, perhaps I should feel satisfaction that I’ve created such engaging experiences. But I can’t help but think: maybe we mobile designers have done our jobs a little too well. And maybe “engagement” was the wrong goal to chase in the first place.

It’s a business trip, and I’m taking in a meal on my own. While I wait, I entertain myself by poking at sites and flipping through feeds on my phone. Media has always been the armor of a solo traveler; a book, a newspaper, and now your phone… they all cushion you from your own isolation.

But I look around the restaurant, and I’m not the only one wearing the armor. Every table is occupied by people pecking at their phones-a couple here, a group of friends over there, all on their phones. A family is packed into the corner; only the toddler is looking around the room, alert. Everyone else is heads down.

Phone vs whale
Photo by Eric J. Smith.

I love mobile devices. I’ve devoted years of my career to designing for them. I’m a believer. The smartphone is amazing, a personal supercomputer that empowers us in a jillion ways and connects us with each another in loose but novel ways.

Here’s what makes the thing so powerful: it’s available at the point of inspiration. We can act on immediate impulse to get information or media or services or commerce. Snap that photo, record that conversation, consult that map.

This superpower is also mobile’s Achilles’ heel. Because the phone is available at the point of inspiration, it also carries us away from the very thing that inspired us. The more connected we are, the more disconnected we become from the world around us.

Even when we’re not actually using our phones, they still distract. A recent study found that performance on basic tests of attention gets worse if a cellphone is merely visible nearby.

How can we get all the marvelous benefits of these digital systems without disengaging from a far richer interface, the physical environment? Screens are always going to be with us, but perhaps they can merely caption our lives instead of frame them.

When you say “engagement,” I now hear “theft of attention.”

“Engagement” is a common business goal for the design of so many websites, apps, and services. We lure people in and try to figure out how to get them to stay. We tell ourselves that our goal is to “delight” users, but I think we’ve lost the thread of what the word actually means. We seem to think it means keeping people distracted and busy. When you say “engagement,” I now hear “theft of attention.”

As we bathe in data and swim in interfaces, spending time on site is not a gift. The real luxury is the occasional moment of peace and calm. That’s not how we designers typically tune our digital experiences. Instead, we vie for attention. We notify and nag.

The best technologies disappear into the environment to minimize distraction from the content or experience at hand. Yet we design for distraction, and we call it engagement.

Instead of engaging attention, I’d like to free it. Instead of maximizing time on site, I’d like to reduce it. Give people the information they need, and let them get back to their lives. Notify only when there’s something worth saying. Ask for attention only for content that deserves it. Less talk, more conversation.

Instead of engaging attention, I’d like to free it. Instead of maximizing time on site, I’d like to reduce it.

Smartwatches ask designers to put a new focus on glances instead of sessions. I love it.

Watches don’t ask us to linger. Smartwatch design guidelines suggest that the best experiences limit interaction with the screen. (Android Wear encourages interactions of less than five seconds, for example.) Done well, that means we get quick doses of information delivered at just the right moment, and then we can return to the world. They provide a way for us to skim the digital surface instead of diving deep. Glanceability over engagement.

The trouble: glances work well when they’re delivered with respect and discretion, but alas those seem to be in short supply.

We deliver notifications about everything. Our phones and watches buzz constantly. If you have good digital hygiene, you’ll immediately start pruning those back. But few of us do that, which means these glance notifications tend to make the information overload worse instead of meeting their potential to ease it.

What happens when those notifications inevitably move off screen? Sensors, processors, and connectivity have become so trivially inexpensive that we can embed them into anything. That’s what the internet of things is all about, and it means anything can be an interface. This could go wonderfully or it could go horribly-probably both.

The last thing we need is for all of these new interfaces to tantrum for attention. Designers have to put careful thought into what’s an appropriate interruption, what’s the right information for the moment. As we embed software in the world, the challenge and opportunity is to supplement and amplify our real-world experience, not distract from it. Digital advantages without digital distractions.

The potential of the internet of things is to improve on what mobile does so well. Instead of availability at the point of inspiration, IoT lets us shift to interaction with the point of inspiration. Add sensors and smarts to an object or place, and you no longer have to pull out your phone for a digital interaction. We’re starting to create physical interfaces for digital systems, no screen even necessary.

The opportunity is to shift the interface to the physical world. That’s always been our primary interface, of course. But now we can begin to make it the digital interface, too, returning engagement to the world around us and freeing it from behind glass slabs.

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