I’m a tech guy. I got my first break with computers and I’ve started tech companies. But even I’m concerned about the encroachment of technology in our lives and the impact it can have on our quality of life.
When digital technology intersects with your life, it can make things better—or worse. Normally we think about the improvements—how a phone in your pocket makes it easier to stay in touch or GPS in your car keeps you from getting lost. But technology can also make things more difficult—like when that GPS is so poorly designed it becomes a distraction.
The impact created by the intersection of digital with our daily lives, let’s call that digital quality of life. It’s important to consider digital quality of life because these devices are becoming so ubiquitous. Every time there’s a poorly designed screen or a negative experience, it decreases our digital quality of life. It makes life harder, not easier, and that’s not what we want from our technology.
The Proliferation of Devices
The proliferation of technology is mind boggling:
- 20.4 billion connected devices, a number that’s expected to double by 2027.
- 11.9 million apps in 2020, up 33% from the previous year.
- 96% of people have a cell phone and 81% have a smartphone, an incredible rate of tech adoption.
Of course all those devices and apps result in a monumental amount of screen time. Estimates vary from over 17 hours per day to a spike to over 13 hours per day during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even a conservative estimate puts it at nearly eight hours per day in 2020, up 15% from 2019.
Most people spend more time in front of screens than they do sleeping.
Just look around your home. How many things have been upgraded in the past decade to connect with phones or be controlled by apps or now have screens? The simple “off/on/auto” controls on a thermostat have been replaced with a touch screen and a dozen options. Your refrigerator has digital controls and your garage door can be opened or closed with an app.
These devices are everywhere and they have a tremendous impact on our lives. What happens when that thermostat has a glitch and there’s no manual override? Or what if that distracting GPS interface causes an accident?
Impact on Quality of Life
Certainly technology can be wonderful. If I forget to close my garage door, I can do it with a few quick taps from my phone while I’m tucked in bed. Many people have sung the praises of new technology. For all the excessive features that let you do all things from the comfort of the couch, there are plenty of ways this technology actually saves lives.
But for all the wonders of technology, it’s just a tool. It can be used for good or ill. And if we’re not intentional about making sure technology has a positive impact, then we’re leaving the door open for a wealth of unintended consequences.
- Navigation devices in cars are a great way to help people get around and avoid getting lost. But they can also be overly complex and distract drivers, creating a dangerous safety hazard.
- A dizzying array of usernames and passwords for everything from your bank account to your thermostat can completely overwhelm people, resulting in lax security that can leave sensitive information and livelihoods vulnerable.
- Adding screens and internet connectivity to every household device results in unnecessary upgrades and waste, plus a culture of planned obsolescence has replaced tinkering and repair.
To be clear, none of this is intentional. Software developers are not evil villains. Often they’re doing the best they can and aren’t given resources for user testing.
The potential downside of all this proliferating technology is clear. It’s not the danger of a robot uprising, it’s the daily frustration that wastes time and energy. It’s distractions that can turn deadly. It’s a subtle shift in focus from people to products. It’s items that still have useful life left, but are discarded—creating environmental waste on both ends of the production process. It’s an opportunity cost where we’re missing out on building culture and losing relational capital. It’s robbing people of satisfaction and free will.
Just consider the ridiculousness of the most common tech support advice: “Have you tried turning it off and back on again?”
The worst part? That advice usually works. But it’s a temporary fix that doesn’t address the long-term problem. It doesn’t show people how to better use their device and avoid problems. It doesn’t teach them how to solve an issue. It’s just a magic fix that hides the real problem.
Improving Digital Quality of Life
So where do we go from here? We need to put the focus back on the people the technology is here to help. Rather than focusing on the latest device or app, we need to focus on how this proliferating technology is actually making life better. Not simply quicker and more efficient, but how is it improving the quality of life? Are people more engaged, connected, satisfied?
This can happen in a number of ways:
- Better user interface: There needs to be a renewed focus on user interface improvements. Too often buttons or controls are dictated by the first solution or what’s easy for the technical or mechanical components. That’s how cars end up with two different buttons to control the speed of windshield wipers. Something as mundane as simplifying windshield wiper controls can reduce driver frustration and increase safety when it’s needed most.
- Tap into enjoyment: More than simply working, technology should seek to create enjoyment. This goes well beyond gamification, but it’s about creating those incentives and surprises that bring joy to interactions. If a business needs employees to log reports, find a way to do it that feels more engaging than busy work. It helps to understand what motivates the employee and for them to understand why the business needs these reports. Understanding the connections and relationships can help us set up the appropriate reward and response mechanisms. People should love their tech, not because it’s addictive but because it’s fun to use.
- Focus on people: More than anything, the focus should be on people. By starting with people first, you can truly understand their needs and what drives them. More than an interface improvement, this might lead to wholesale change. Rethink processes so they focus on people. Serve the person, not the process. This is without a doubt a harder approach. But it’s better in the long run.
The vast proliferation of devices should be making our lives better. But are things better?
The World Happiness Report shows a 27% increase in negative feelings—worry, sadness, anger—from 2010 to 2018. We can’t say our devices are causing this, but we also can’t say our devices are making us happier.
And if our devices aren’t making things better, what’s the point?
It’s time to rethink how we approach technology—especially those of us who create software and build devices—and focus on improving digital quality of life. Let’s reset the expectations and recalibrate what’s possible.