Are We Addicted to our Smartphones?

A new study looks at how smartphones are designed to be habit forming

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Steven Cherry:

Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.” This is show number 64.

Smoking is becoming an almost outlawed activity—in New York City you can’t even smoke in public parks anymore—but back in its heyday, it was deeply embedded in people’s daily routines. There was the cigarette that went with a cup of coffee or cocktail, the one stepping out of a movie theater, or off an airplane, and the one we can’t talk about in polite company.

These social and situational habits were almost as strong as the physical addiction itself. Today, our reflexive acts more often than not involve our smartphones. Indeed, some of them nearly the same habits—watch the synchronized ballet of airplane passengers at the moment they hear the we-have-landed chime or Broadway theatergoers as the curtain comes down at intermission.

This sort of intersection of social behavior and technology is the province of a very cool corner of the research world called design ethnography. My guest today, Tye Rattenbury, recently coauthored an article entitled “Habits Make Smartphone Use More Pervasive,” published in the journal of Personal and Ubiquitous Computing. At the time he was a research scientist at Intel Labs in the People and Practices group; now he’s a data scientist at a leading digital advertising agency, R/GA. He joins us by phone from New York City.

Tye, welcome to the podcast.

Tye Rattenbury: Great to be here.

Steven Cherry: Tye, your paper doesn’t mention cigarette smoking. It’s just something that came to mind for me. Do you think it’s a fair comparison?

Tye Rattenbury: Yes and no. I think it’s fair in terms of looking at the kind of temporality of it, maybe the frequency that it happens, the duration that that activity lasts when someone does perform it. But there is a difference in what I think is in what’s sort of rewarded. I think obviously a lot of smokers feel some physical change, some chemical change, you know, in smoking cigarettes, so there is a sense in which there’s a reward for that behavior.

Steven Cherry: Yeah. I wanted to ask you about that. The paper does refer to the capacity of smartphones to provide what it calls quick access to rewards. What’s that about?

Tye Rattenbury: Yeah, so what we’re pointing out there is the increasing connectivity of smartphones into various domains of information. So into the social domain in terms of e-mails, text messages, phone messages, and so on, and into, you know, all the, sort of, all the available information on the Web with mobile Internet accessibility through smartphones, and increasingly, you know, applications that are designed to pull together information that wasn’t available beforehand. So now you can do, sort of, mobile banking on the go, things like this. So the sort of increasing diversity in information that’s accessible through these devices and the format and style in which that that information is made available is really the sort of reward that we’re pointing out and is what we’re calling the, sort of, driver of these new forms of habits.

Steven Cherry: You know your study found that we can be on our phones for two, two and a half hours a day. For much of that it seems like we’re filling in little moments of our lives and they just add up.

Tye Rattenbury: That’s definitely right. So the median duration that we saw, that we observed in our studies around smartphone use was around 90 seconds. So you’re basically on average filling up two and a half hours’ worth of interaction through a whole series of very short, you know, minute, two-minute interactions. It’s not to say of course that there aren’t longer interactions people certainly catch the occasional YouTube video or play a game on their phone for 10, 15, 20 minutes, but certainly if you just look at the number of sessions the vast majority of them are quite short in duration.

Steven Cherry: Here in New York it seems like you can’t ride an elevator without seeing most of the people looking at their phone.

Tye Rattenbury: Definitely. Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, actually, again I think this points to the sort of smartphone connectivity and it’s ability to access information and present that information in a very, sort of, quick, quick to access manner, the short elevator ride of 10, 20 seconds which is actually a sufficient amount of time to read an e-mail, check to see if you had new e-mails come in, maybe even write a text message yourself. And so that timeline now is becoming useful whereas before, you know, with a slower device or a device that didn’t have the connectivity to the types of information that smartphones do, you know, that time was spent daydreaming or thinking about something else that you would do when you got off the elevator.

Steven Cherry: The paper asks, raises the issue what design factors promote habit formation? Did you find anything along those lines?

Tye Rattenbury: Yeah, so this is a very interesting thing. What we’re really trying to push on here is the idea that—well one of the findings, let me back up a little bit—one of the findings that we found is that, you know, as the diversity of information available on the device increased, not only did people partake in more of these checking habits, more of these quick looks on the device to check out this new information that they now had access to, but it also resulted in more use of other types of applications and things. So in some sense we called it a gateway activity. But these habits become a portal to using the device for other stuff, so the implication there and from a design perspective is that not only is it, sort of, appropriate to design information content to fit into these, sort of, really quick short duration interactions, but also to think about how those short interactions might eventually lead into more and other types of activities on the device.

Steven Cherry: You found that people often looked at their phones for as little as one second. What’s going on with that?

Tye Rattenbury: Yeah, a lot of times what’s happening is, well, now the sort of locked screen on most devices, certainly on Android devices, which was one of the classes that we studied, offered you a set of icons that would notify you very quickly whether new messages had come in, you’d missed a phone call or anything like that, and what we were seeing quite a bit were people just turning on the screen for 1 or 2 seconds to see those icons and get a feel for if there had been any new sort of messages or information that had come in.

Steven Cherry: I guess a lot of times people are just checking the time.

Tye Rattenbury: Yes, that’s also true. Yeah, definitely.

Steven Cherry: Did any particular applications show up most prominently? I’m thinking text messaging was a big one and maybe Facebook would be another?

Tye Rattenbury: Yeah, you know, text messaging and Facebook. Text messaging is, sort of, orders of magnitude more frequently used in the studies when we conducted them so that are now kind of one, two, three years old, so kind of, before Facebook really hit mobile devices in a, sort of, serious way. So the majority of application use that we saw was around text messaging and Internet browsing more generally, and then a lot of stuff, sort of, looking up status updates through various forms of contact books so it would be like a Facebook but more specific and bespoke to, for example the Nokia phone list’s design.

Steven Cherry: To get to sort of the bottom line: Are we addicted to our smartphones?

Tye Rattenbury: Aha. Addiction, this is a good word. You know, I think addiction from more of a clinical sense often implies kind of a negative impact to other aspects of people’s lives and I think it’s unclear whether we’ve crossed that barrier yet. Certainly people find other people’s smartphone use annoying here and there, but for the most part we’re getting by without, sort of, serious negative effects to everyday life, so in that sense I would say not addicted. Definitely habituated, though. You know if you just compare smartphone use to PC use, it’s already two to three times more use per day on average than a PC’s. So smartphones, certainly that mobility, that access to a greater diversity of information, and that, sort of ability, to take those quick checks here and there have increased their ubiquity in daily life.

Steven Cherry: Maybe you could just say a word about how the research was conducted. You already alluded to this, but there was both a quantitative and a qualitative element to it.

Tye Rattenbury: That’s right, yeah, so we actually pieced together three different studies here. So one was a study that was conducted through Intel research tracking Android smartphone usage. Another study was done through the Helsinki Institute through Antti, whose one of the other coauthors, they had given students devices and then tracked their usage as well as conducted surveys, and then they had a third study which was more longitudinal, which involved a lot of qualitative, sort of, ethnographic research around those people and, kind of, what their interests were and how their interests were changing over time as a result of the device usage.

Steven Cherry: You have a Ph.D. from Berkeley and technically it’s in the computer science division, but your dissertation really bridged the fields of design and behavior science as well as computer science. Having to use quantitative and qualitative research methods made me think, you know, maybe the sort of work that you do doesn’t really have a natural home in academia.

Tye Rattenbury: Yeah, I think that’s definitely right. I’ve sort of on a trajectory that’s taken me out of the academic world and I think it largely has to do with, yeah, having that sort of hybrid role. There’s certainly some issues in publishing. You know cross-disciplinary publication is not nontrivial to manage, certainly, and it’s also I think quite hard to manage, sort of, departmental politics when you do research that doesn’t squarely fit within one department for various reasons. So that, and I think there’s a lot of interesting work in the space of, kind of, design and, kind of, the cutting edge of user consumer technology that, you know, is being done in industries. It’s not as if the cutting edge is necessarily restricted to the academic world in this field.

Steven Cherry: And yet, even at Intel you were in this kind of anomalous little group—the people and practices.

Tye Rattenbury: That’s right. Yeah, so the people and practices group—just a bit of back history there—it was started, I think, about 15 years ago now by anthropologists, and it was really Intel’s attempt at that time to get better in touch with the consumer. You know Intel’s business traditionally is not to deal with end consumer’s directly, so at the time it was considered a very novel move for them to get more in touch with the consumer and actually use that to both inform the direction of their product development, but also to inform the way that they were selling their products to a Dell or an HP. And so that group, kind of, grew and took on a number of different, sort of, functional roles within Intel. You know, initially it was strictly focused on, kind of, user research and increasingly it became focused on more of a generic market research, and then also explored various forms of, sort of, design research, looking at new form factors, new device spaces in a way to, kind of, inform our product line that way as well.

Steven Cherry: So in a way it was sort of a natural flow from that into advertising.

Tye Rattenbury: Yeah, definitely. RG/A’s, sort of, an interesting beast in its own right. We certainly do a lot of digital advertising, which involves building, you know, the annoying banner ad and that sort of thing, but we also work quite heavily with our clients on product and service development, so we do a lot of consumer relationship management, so portals for consumers to come back to a brand or company and interact with them around previous sales that have been made, previous transactions, or perhaps building, you know, a longer profile history of interaction with that company. So we work very heavily in those spaces as well, so again that’s an interesting area for me because it bridges both, you know, kind of technology and design but also, kind of, involves the, sort of, evolving trend of how we understand, kind of, culture.

Steven Cherry: We haven’t seen too much by way of direct advertising on smartphones. Is that coming?

Tye Rattenbury: You know it’s hard to say, you know. Again, I think this partly comes down to the sort of timelines that people are interacting on, so if most people are on their phone for, you know, 30 seconds, 50 seconds, a minute and a half, it’s very hard to stick in a 30-second video spot and the screen size actually is highly restrictive in terms of putting, you know, traditional banner ad or anything like that in the device. So I think people have really struggled in the advertising world to figure out how to put advertisements on those devices, mostly because there’s not, kind, of a natural slot to fit them in in the interaction. And I think someone will find a clever way to get them in there, but it’s unclear yet what form they’ll take. I doubt they’ll look like traditional advertisements.

Steven Cherry: If people are on their phones more than they’re watching TV though, it’s kind of an irresistible target.

Tye Rattenbury: Yes, absolutely. I mean, it’s certainly on the minds of many people, you know, for example, Google. Certainly, the increasing use of mobile Internet and mobile search, you know, more and more traffic through Google is being pushed through mobile smartphone devices and so of course, yes, they very much recognize that this is a new sort of channel that they need to manage in terms of their revenue flow through advertising. So it’s definitely going to come. I think the question is just what form it takes.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Well, it sounds like a good topic for an upcoming podcast.

Tye Rattenbury: Definitely.

Steven Cherry: Well, very good. Thanks so much for spending time with us today.

Tye Rattenbury: Thank you very much for having me.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Tye Rattenbury, a data scientist at the digital advertising firm R/GA, about our habit-driven, nearly addictive, behaviors with smartphones. For IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations,” I’m Steven Cherry.

This interview was recorded 12 September 2011.
Audio engineer: Francesco Ferorelli

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