A Pragmatic Approach to Screen Addiction

Our reliance on smartphones has led to concerns that they lead to anxiety and stress. Could modifications in their design make a difference?

Smartphone usage in the UK is reaching saturation point, and the latest statistics show that 85 percent of over 16s own one. Back in 2014, a study suggested that we carry out more than 200 tasks per day on our smartphone – and in the years since, that number is sure to have risen. Whether you want to look at your bank balance, see tomorrow’s weather forecast, catch up on the latest news or simply check the time, you go straight to your phone. And as the Internet of Things continues to grow, usage will continue to escalate.

Already there are apps whereby you can use your phone to switch on the central heating, dim your lights or even unlock your car. The ubiquity of our phones, and the regularity with which we use them has, inevitably, raised concerns in certain quarters, with suggestions that usage can lead to depression and anxiety. However, if smartphones are here to stay, perhaps we should not be adopting a King Canute attitude of trying to stop the tide, but instead, we should look at design aspects of the phones and apps themselves.

What can designers do to help?

Talk about the role of designers in smartphones, and you tend to think of basic aesthetics, logo design and the like. However, they also have a fundamental role to play in the images that smartphone users are experiencing when they have their eyes fixed on the screen. Despite this being called a “mobile age” much of the content we consume on our smartphones is inherently designed for a much larger desktop screen, resulting in endless scrolling and zooming. Improving readability is key, and can be achieved by relatively simple design principles such as thinking better about the font and typeface used and ensuring there are the necessary stops in place to keep the content to the width of the screen.

Blue light

The world is experiencing something of an insomnia epidemic at the moment, and many people are blaming our smartphones. The blue light emitted by these as well as other electronic devices fools your brain into thinking it is daylight, and means it stops creating melatonin, known as the “sleep hormone.” Telling people not to look at their screens before bed is back in the realms of King Canute, but there are things phone designers can do to reduce exposure to blue light, by simply having the screen brightness set to automatically reduce during certain hours.

A work in progress

The alarming thing about smartphones is not that everyone uses them, but that there are still so many unanswered questions. What is the optimum screen size to maintain comfort in terms of both portability and readability? What about brightness? Which fonts work best on a small screen? These are all questions that need to be closely examined as we move towards the next generation of smartphones. And the designers have to be at the centre of the discussion.

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