Designing for Digital Wellbeing

Leveraging the power of breakthroughs and challenges—"ahas" and "uh-ohs"—to create a more balanced, healthy future for all

Humans are no strangers to innovation. Ages are even defined by technological medium—from stone, to bronze, to industrial, and now, digital. Each period plays a role in shaping the next, with everything interconnected in a continuous cycle. But each breakthrough brings with it new challenges.

In this Digital Age, screens and smart tech have become incredible means of connection—portals to other places, people, and emotions—but our relationship with our devices is complex, and sometimes fraught. At Google, we’re working to examine and evolve this balance through the concept of digital wellbeing, so that technology can improve peoples’ lives, not distract from them. This mission is carried out by product teams that include user experience (UX) practitioners and AI researchers. With a focus on human-tech interactions, these practitioners wrestle with the paradox of technology every day. Yet even the savviest design solution can lay bare another issue—and this aha / uh-oh cycle forms the iterative process that’s now the cornerstone of thoughtful, quality design.

Here, three UX practitioners discuss their work at the forefront of digital wellbeing, exploring how a digital ecosystem, or digisphere, that’s developed with empathy has the power to change our future for the better.

Identifying “screen time” as a measure of digital wellbeing was a major breakthrough.

The rise of screen time

Sara Lunder, Senior Interaction Designer: A few years ago at I/O, Sundar [Pichai, Alphabet CEO] announced a commitment to digital wellbeing as a company-wide effort to help people balance their technology use in a way that feels right for them. To do this, we needed to understand the impacts of tech in specific and measurable ways—and we made a real breakthrough when we identified “screen time” as a measure of digital wellbeing. We found that reducing exposure to digital screens alleviated anxiety in many cases, and freed up time for other enjoyable activities. It helped people consider their relationship with tech, and it was particularly useful for kids and families, who spent more time than they’d like arguing about screen time.

One solution to assist people in cutting down their usage was to display total screen time data. This made sense from an awareness perspective—research shows that people are most likely to improve their habits when they know about them. But we soon found that this approach had major trade-offs. When COVID-19 hit, our routines changed. Spending more time at home than ever, people were separated from loved ones and compensated for those quality moments by chatting with them online. Tech was bringing people closer, reinforcing the feeling of connectedness—but reminders of their mounting screen time left them feeling ashamed, confused, and generally annoyed.

Our aha led us to another uh-oh. We saw clearly why screen time alone is not representative of digital wellbeing. To make it truly useful, data must be shown in relation to the context in which a device is being used.

Raising awareness, mitigating shame

Kate Lockhart, Content Strategist: Sara, you bring up two things that really hit home as we started creating content for digital wellbeing: awareness and shame. When we first announced a commitment to digital wellbeing, the big aha was that we needed to raise awareness about how people were using their devices. People just didn’t know what digital wellbeing was, or what to make of it. And to be honest, we were learning, too. But it was a great opportunity—this was a chance to reflect on our individual and collective relationship with tech. We’d reclaim our time and attention from the world’s screens!

But we began to receive legitimate pushack. Some people resisted what they perceived as an overly prescriptive set of rules about how they should (or shouldn’t) use their time. We got feedback from users such as: “Video games relax me!” “I thought my life was OK!” “You can’t tell me what to do.” What was meant to be supportive felt more like shaming for some people. We hadn’t accounted for the deeply ingrained relationship that people already had with their devices—even if it was a conflicted one.

We needed to raise awareness about how people were using their devices.

We can build improved defaults into features and products that foster healthy tech use.

A default to wellbeing

Sara: Exactly, Kate. That reaction forced us to consider how we might design experiences to allow people to form healthy relationships with tech from the start. Digital wellbeing is all about the context in which people use technology—when and how—but also why. Are they picking up the phone with a clear intention or out of habit? So much of intentionality depends on an individual’s lifestyle, tech savviness, and motivation. We thought: If we can’t quantify unintentional use, or design for people’s infinite needs and varied situations, we can build improved defaults into features and products that foster healthy tech use. This could make the entire phone more attentive to people’s wellbeing. These “invisible” features remove the burden from individuals, and create a healthy norm for everyone.

But designing a single product experience within a digital ecosystem is a lot like tending to a tree in a forest. Imagine all those intertwined roots underneath the soil—what’s happening to the system affects the tree, and vice versa—so addressing one tree requires understanding its place, and role, in the surrounding environment.

Normalizing compassion

Lauren Wilcox, Researcher: And that complexity led us back to measurement. When I first started as a digital wellbeing researcher, I dove into learning about new research and design initiatives to support people in finding the “right balance” and “right type” of technology use. The concern about overuse of technology was increasing in urgency, and raised important questions about how to better understand the role of design in reversing this trend. To achieve digital wellbeing, it became clear that researchers and designers must grapple with myriad challenges related to measurement—each of which could be part of those “intertwined roots” that you mentioned, Sara. We needed to consider: What is an ideal amount of digital device use for an individual? For a family? What if our individual metrics fail to reflect larger, community-level ideals and values? How can we consider social contexts of use, which influence any solution we might provide? How can we create and verify reliable understandings of “healthy” digital productivity? Or approaches to digital forms of parental supervision? How can we better understand and combat physical fatigue that goes with device use, and protect against poor mental wellbeing, and burnout?

As we learned that there’s no single “lever” for digital wellbeing—such as screen time—we recognized the need to better understand how to be more respectful of users’ attention, as both of you mentioned. We started driving adoption of wellbeing principles across a suite of Google products to support sleep, intentional use, and a healthy balance with technology use for families. If we only focus on direct interactions with one product, we’ll miss the mark. So in designing for digital wellbeing, we need to change the way we think about success criteria. We need to go from a focus on short-term impressions or engagement, to observing long-term attitudes, behaviors, and relationships with an ecosystem of technology.

Today, a big open question for digital wellbeing relates to the role of design in “regulating” use and the role of tracking and monitoring as a mechanism for this purpose. We know methods that attempt to make decisions about what too much tech use is for an individual—or that use invasive or disruptive sensing approaches to determine people’s context—don’t ultimately support digital wellbeing. So how can we instead make sure that we design in ways that put individuals in control and also equip them with information to make good wellbeing choices? And, how can we do this in ways that scale across the many different types of people and scenarios that we support?

We recognized the need to better understand how to be more respectful of users’ attention.

Personal technology can be positive, when people can access psychologically safe online environments that foster a sense of connection and belonging.

Adapting with empathy

Kate: That’s such a good point, Lauren. It shows the challenges of providing solutions at scale, which takes on a whole new meaning when we’re talking about the global digisphere! To scale content, we talk a lot about frameworks and principles because they’re the best way we have, so far, to provide structure to a multi-faceted system without getting too prescriptive. And as you mentioned, too prescriptive is not good. With digital wellbeing revealing itself as an ecosystem-wide issue, we realized that we needed to create those wellbeing principles mentioned before. That way, we could share healthy practices with developers around the world, and ensure that the majority of experiences respect people’s wellbeing. We established four UX principles—universally relevant and easy to apply—and even created a series of guidelines specifically to support people’s self-esteem when they use face retouching features on camera apps. It felt rewarding to infuse concepts of compassionate communication, diversity, equity, and inclusion into the core of the UX process.

Then this past year, COVID-19 changed everything. Practically overnight, so much of the world moved online: shopping, job hunting, working, schooling, selling produce, healthcare, parties, you name it. We collectively experienced this mega cultural shift, but we didn’t all experience it the same way. The digisphere discriminates based on access and ability. No matter how many well-intentioned principles we shared with the world, they weren’t going to fix a system built for people with financial and educational privilege. Digital wellbeing was certainly more than screen time. It was everything. It was sleep, work, education, social connection, mental health, equity, and more. We had to start widening the aperture of digital wellbeing to encompass all of it.

Lauren: Yes, and the social connection component is huge. We’re finding from the research that use of personal technology to develop and foster social connection can be really positive, when people can access psychologically safe online environments that foster a sense of connection and belonging. This happens to be really important for mental wellbeing, which is a big theme that we’ve seen across research studies, and an area that we need to watch very closely, to make sure we are designing in ways that help rather than harm wellbeing. Unfortunately, people are struggling more with mental wellbeing concerns and stress. And this, in turn, is an equity issue because mental health issues are disproportionately impacting members of marginalized groups more than others, like Hispanic and Black people, adolescents and young adults (especially LGBTQ+ youth), essential workers, unpaid caregivers (who are primarily women), and those receiving treatment for pre-existing psychiatric conditions. So the finding that technology plays a large role in fostering positive social connection is really important. On the other hand, we’re also hearing that people are often responding to loneliness or isolation by staying on devices when they intend to go to bed. This struggle with late-night use of personal technology disrupts healthy sleep. So as a first step, we’re pursuing smarter design of notifications and interruptions to reduce stress, while supporting lightweight ways of maintaining a social presence throughout the day. Finally, newly-formed teams are exploring how to better enable people to find basic resources, using Search, that can improve their overall wellbeing.

The dawn of a new age

Kate: The effects of COVID-19 continue to profoundly impact and alter our lives, and will likely define this generation. But difficulty can lead to discovery. We can’t overlook this era’s lessons, and its potential to push us to do better, think bigger, and be kinder. With thoughtful consideration, we can find the future of wellbeing within the toughest issues of our times. There are technological solutions emerging now that will get us there—a digisphere where platforms, ecosystems, devices, services, companies, and governments connect to form cohesive experiences that seamlessly support people on their journey. With a modern version of Internet of Things (IoT), or ambient computing, the most individualized contexts can be supported. Or put another way, the power to deliver equity, inclusion, accessibility, and connection at a scale never seen before, with monumental improvements in the wellbeing of people and environments around the globe. This is what drives the vigilance of UX practitioners to anticipate the next uh-oh before it manifests. Future developments will be powered with empathy. And with any luck, our next age will be the first defined by something greater than technology alone.

Future developments will be powered with empathy.