Mobile tech and the challenge and opportunity for design

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

Lots of things bother me when I’m driving my car.  But recently I’ve found that the number one thing making me bang my head on the steering wheel is when I’m behind a car at a stoplight, the light changes…and nothing happens. Many times I can see the back of the driver’s head, which is almost always tilted down, and I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is because the person in front of me is texting or surfing the web.

A recent report from the Seattle Times that one in twelve active drivers in Washington State was observed using a cellphone while driving confirms how widespread this problem is. The thing is, the problem is, the opportunity is, this is only one small symptom of how our world is changing and becoming full of distraction. I may be irritated when the person in front of me isn’t paying attention but at the same time I’m continually impressed by the immediacy and mobility of technology.  In some ways, much as I might rant about people who are texting while driving, I also understand why. They do it because it’s easy, simple, and feeds our hardwired desire for rapid positive feedback.

So what can be done?

In my last post, I very briefly talked about the field of Behavioral Economics and how that approach is taking the concepts of economics and turning them around.  Rather than postulating how people theoretically should act (ie, rational actor theory for example), Behavioral Economics uses empirical observations as well as findings in psychology and neurobiology and asks, knowing what we do about how people are and why they behave that way, what can we do with that knowledge to try and implement changes in behavior of general public and personal benefit.

The often cited example is 401K enrollment.  There is pretty much no question that enrolling in your company’s 401K plan is a good personal move for the vast majority of people.  And yet, when people have to actively choose a 401K plan upon becoming employed a staggeringly large number of people don’t do it. A behavioral economics approach to this would first recognize that active choices generally pose a greater hurdle to action than passive choices, and would therefore suggest 401K programs be opt-out rather than opt-in.  The point is that choice is not removed; anyone can choose not to have  401K.  But the way humans make decisions and choices means that having an opt-out plan results in increase in enrollment from 13 to 80%.

And this is where wearable and mobile tech will, I hope, greatly benefit.  Take the example of the texting driver.  Yes, we have laws against texting or calling while in cars.  And yet people still do so.  We’d like to believe that negative and positive incentives like laws and public awareness campaigns will  make a difference, but realistically people often do what is convenient, simple and provides immediate feedback and gratification.

The trick now will be to design our apps and our digital, mobile tools so that they generally make it easier to do the right thing.  Just one example could be getting Apple, Google and Microsoft to agree that their mobile operating systems will always contain a standard app that keeps a phone from receiving or sending text messages or phone calls whenever the GPS/accelerometer suggest the phone is in a moving vehicle.  And this app is always on but can be turned off temporarily if the user desires.

So, if you really want to text in your car, every time you get ready to drive you can pull out your phone, scroll through the apps and temporarily turn off the no-texting-while-driving app.  And my hope would be that a substantial fraction of people would never bother to do so.

Maybe the OS manufacturers would never agree to do this for fear of losing market share.  Maybe a hack to remove that app circulates rapidly, nullifying the possible benefits.  That’s just means there’s a different opportunity for someone else to figure out a different environmental fix for the problem of the distractions of mobile tech.

And do it soon.  Because I really hate waiting at green lights.

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