Design for Focus

In The Role of the 21st Century Designer, Paul Scrivens talks about the idea of designing less. He writes: “There is already enough stuff in the world. The software that we use already has enough features. The TV remote already has enough buttons. Now it is time for designers to start figuring out how we can design less, but get more out of it.” The idea is to figure out how to make things simpler without making them less functional, or indeed, how to add additional functionality while making things even simpler.

Related to the above, I think there is another role for the 21st century designer, and that’s to design for focus. I touched on this briefly in my post on moral design. The consumer technology world today is moving towards three things: greater accessibility, increased mobility and staying notified. Our electronic devices are becoming easier to use, smaller and more portable, as well as gaining wider access to the Internet. More and more applications now want to keep you notified of the smallest updates, and the amount of notifications has grown to a point where operating systems have their own notification centers to manage these streams of messages. While the above are useful in their own ways, they also work together to turn our electronic devices into tools of perpetual distraction.

Over the last several years, the Web and consumer software applications have improved tremendously in their ease of use. With growing competition, the usability of your site or app became a real differentiating factor. Making things user friendly and simple to use isn’t just part of good design, it’s good business sense. Terms like UX (user experience), seldom used only a few years back, have become part of every developer’s vocabulary. But as consumer tech became easier to use, it also became more distracting. There are a lot more apps and sites these days, and so to stay alive each one has to scream for your attention, trying to pull you back in, get you to use it again. We’ve created a world of endless distraction.

It is time to stop abusing your users’ time and start designing for focus. Keeping consumers glued to the screen may be good for your business, but is it good for the people using your products? Is it worth breaking up their day into a thousand shards simply because you can’t wait to notify them about the most trivial update? But breaking concentration is one thing, even worse is the addictiveness you generate by training your users to constantly keep checking back. Random updates create a positive reinforcement loop in the user’s brain, which pumps out the optimal amount of dopamine to satisfy their reward seeking behavior. It’s the principle used in gambling slot machines: scatter rewards randomly together with the chance of a few large rewards, and you’ve got the ultimate addiction machine. It’s why people keep checking their email all day long. We’ve got those slot machines in our pockets now.

The alternative: design for focus. Yes, you can build notifications into your app, but why not break the trend and avoid them? There are very few use cases where notifications make a real difference, and your new social game certainly isn’t one of them. In the same way, why not remove much of the user interface clutter and multi-tasking and let people focus fully on the task at hand? This is a trend we’ve seen in writing software. There’s this whole new genre of bare bones writing apps that give you one big blank canvas to write on, no formatting, no layouts – nothing but text (Examples: iA Writer, Byword, Ommwriter, and the one that predates them all: WriteRoom). These apps aren’t just about usability, they’re about eliminating all distractions, including the distractions of fiddling with the tool itself. They’re designed for focus.

When Apple released the first iPhone, there was no way to multi-task. There still really isn’t, but they’ve made it much easier to switch back and forth between apps. In the first iteration, if you wanted to go to another app you had to quit the app you were currently using by going back to the home screen and then proceed to launch the other app. Changed your mind? Close the app and pick another. This was a true single app environment. Many people hated it and kept asking Apple to introduce some form of multi-tasking, but I thought that the constraint imposed by the more primitive design was actually a good thing. It let you focus fully on the task at hand. There was no place for your mind to wander off and become distracted, the app in front of you got your full attention.

Designing for focus isn’t just good for your users, it can make good business sense, too. The distraction free writing apps I mentioned have had their share of success, with iA Writer for Mac selling almost 5,000 copies in the two weeks after launch. I’m writing these words using the app. I don’t have the numbers for the other ones but based on the share of mentions across the Web it’s not a stretch to estimate healthy sales. The idea of eliminating distractions and helping users focus has resonated with people. Just like usability has grown in importance over the years in software and web design, so could the new approach to designing software for focus – respecting your users time, eliminating distractions, setting up a slower, more peaceful experience and giving your users the chance to fully engage with the task at hand.

August 2012