How do you define a smartphone

The smartphone cure

Can you then bypass the rules you have set yourself?
Matthias Böhmer:
Tech-savvy people can do it. We later implemented in the app that rules can also be paused. But we received feedback from users that it was too easy for them. They actually want to control themselves with the app and control their behavior. Such a pause function apparently leads to the fact that the weaker self wins and many activate this pause permanently.

How did you come up with the idea for AppDetox?
Matthias Böhmer:
The idea came up during my doctoral thesis in 2013 together with another doctoral student and one of my students at the time. We have been busy developing technologies that accompany and support us in everyday life. We were inspired by several research papers on the subject, which also have a strong impact on behavioral psychology. An investigation, for example, showed a behavioral pattern among cell phone users through incoming messages: We constantly check our cell phone for a new message. If we then actually receive one, it acts as a positive support for our behavior - a good reason to keep looking at the smartphone. We not only wanted to offer users a way to control their smartphone usage, but primarily to investigate whether and how this control tool works.

Does that mean that the AppDetox users are also test subjects?
Matthias Böhmer:
Not any longer longer. You can still use the app, but as a study it only ran in 2013 over a period of ten months. When the topic of app stores came up a few years ago, the research community was considering how to use these stores for empirical studies. Usually you test applications with test subjects in the laboratory. But certain phenomena are not so easy to study in the controlled environment of a laboratory. That is why you develop an application that implements a research question in order to answer it through “research in the wild”. Of course, users must agree to participate. Our study had around 12,000 participants worldwide.


Which apps were preferred to be blocked during the study?
Matthias Böhmer:
Above all, these were the browsers, chats and applications such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.

Are you continuing to work on AppDetox?
Matthias Böhmer:
Sometimes yes. We currently have 42,000 total users and 12,000 active users. For an app that wasn't advertised, that's not bad. That's why I would like to use the app in teaching. You could evaluate the user feedback from the last few years and expand the app further, realize individual research questions as theses and start new studies. One suggestion by users is, for example, that the rules that have been set can only be changed after restarting the smartphone. That alone is a hurdle for many people. How often do you actually turn off your smartphone? Others have suggested password protection for their rules in order to control their children's cell phone behavior.


So the further developments are about outsmarting your weaker self because you don't want to change your behavior on your own?
Matthias Böhmer:
As many advantages as the smartphone has for us, it unfortunately also promotes our social misconduct. Ultimately, the aim of the applications is to use the technology in such a way that we can use it to positively influence our social behavior. Because we will certainly not change the fact that smartphones and tablets are our constant companions. When groups meet at parties or in restaurants, even at home, many use their smartphones. But actually we don't want the other person looking at the cell phone all the time. For example, one could implement a feature that mitigates this behavior.


In other words, you could develop a rule with which you can only look at the clock at a meeting, but not more?
Matthias Böhmer:
For example. Or you could add gamification elements: if you look at your mobile phone, you pay for the next round. Such questions can be played with, and they can be implemented technically. During my time at Microsoft, we looked at smartphones in a meeting context. Here, too, people are constantly looking at the cell phone. At the time, we had the idea of ​​making the meeting more efficient with a smartphone: with content that encourages people to deal with the meeting. Back then we developed a game with trivia questions that fit the context of the meeting. Who is sitting across from me? Who in the room is the machine learning expert? In the Microsoft world at least that's not a problem. A lot of employee information can be easily accessed there via internal company databases and personal Outlook profiles.


In addition to the social ones, are we showing other noticeable behavioral patterns with our smartphones?
Matthias Böhmer:
Lots. For example, many users do not delete the applications they no longer use, but prefer to move them to subfolders. Another phenomenon is how differently users sort their applications. Some are based on themes, others according to the colors of the icons. Still others position the icons so that a person's face is not obscured on the background image. This service could be automated as an application. In another study, I once examined how incoming calls affect application usage. Imagine you are looking to find a friend on Google Maps. A call comes in, this closes your Maps application. Until recently, you had to accept or decline the call directly - which of course also has social implications. Back in 2013, I published an alternative suggestion that the notification would only be displayed on a small part of the screen. Android has now implemented this representation.


Does that mean Android has adopted your idea?
Matthias Böhmer:
It's difficult, Google doesn't say anything about it. But I know that Google likes to be inspired by publications from the community to implement new developments. I know other topics whose research also resulted in Android developments. Many of Google's UX researchers often go to conferences; But they don't just cut copper, they also publish their own studies. Ultimately, it is like this: Whoever publishes an idea first can, in principle, also be granted authorship.


Interview: Monika Probst

July 2016