Phones are a bad model for user interaction
2019.07.13
7 minutes read

The telephone was the wrong starting point for modern technology. It has framed our cultural dialogue about what new tech is and how it should behave in the vernacular of the telephone, to deleterious effect.

The telephone is a rude invention. It lurks unassumingly in our homes, our private sanctuaries, and allows anyone in the world, on a whim, to ring a loud, intrusive bell at any time. An insistent, unyielding clarion that demands a response. “I am an alarm!” the telephone says, “And I require your attention!” Sure, you may decide to let the phone ring itself out, hoping that the caller gives up or that your stalwart answering machine takes care of things, but the damage is done. The disruption has occurred.

Phones are just plain rude

As rude as they are, it is understandable why telephones behave this way. It is intrinsic to their function to behave in such a manner, and it is a direct result of their historical development that they operate thusly. A timely connection between two users could not be established otherwise. If Alexander Graham Bell had not included his namesake on his invention, users would need to periodically lift the receiver and listen on the slim hope that they might happen to do so just as someone was calling. The telephone is what it is because it has to be. But new technology like “smart phones” absolutely do not need to follow this model. It is merely an accident of association that they do so.

Until recently, most machines could only interact with you on your terms. A dishwasher cannot tell you it’s time to load it. A television entertains and distracts, but only after you’ve chosen to turn it on and sit with it. Likewise, when turned off, the TV will not decide to turn itself back on because there’s a new episode of House it thinks you should watch. You were the operator of the machine, and the sole arbiter of whether it received your attention. Smart phones have completely upended that paradigm.

The evolution of the smart phone is clear in retrospect. Telephones begat mobile phones, so that vital business or emergency communication could occur no matter where you were. As computers became faster and smaller, we began putting them into mobile phones. We created “feature phones” that could not only place calls, but also do some other tasks like play music or take notes. This was a natural evolution, bringing additional utility to an object you already carried with you. Feature phones led to smart phones, and despite a drastic shift in how such devices were primarily used, the “phone” moniker remained. The device you use to take photos, browse the internet, or play games on is still at its core a telephone, and remains beholden to the paradigm of interaction established for telephones.

To be a telephone is to sound an alarm. This behavior is integral to telephones, and now, through the power of transference, to smart phones. It has become the expected behavior that apps will notify you, that apps will sound their alarm. Without its bell, a telephone ceases to function, but the same is not true of most apps. Yet, they still send out notifications. Your notepad app does not require an alarm, neither does any game nor your guitar tuner app. Even your email does not require notifications to function. Your inbox will still accumulate Nigerian princes and male enhancement supplements without an immediate alert of new arrivals. Despite this, the assumption is that a user should opt-out of notifications rather than opt-in. iOS is slightly better about this than Android, but both operate on the presumption of notifications as the de facto norm. The apps are free to make your phone sing and dance in your pocket, unless you take time to plumb the depths of settings menus.

The right to interrupt was conferred on apps thoughtlessly, because it was a right already conferred to the phone itself. Now that apps have been granted the right to interrupt, they are carrying it with them as they make the leap to our watches, our televisions, and our IoT devices. It is a worrisome trend because soon your dishwasher will alert you that it’s time to load it up, and your TV will turn itself on because there’s a new episode of House. Your Mr. Coffee will let you know that 3 people viewed your LinkedIn profile as you pour your morning cup of joe. All our technology will shout at us all the time.

Screamin' apps

The future looks very bombastic indeed if we continue to yield this right to interrupt. We’ll have intelligent hearing aides that chirp Yelp! reviews of nearby laundromats as you walk down the street, and smart glasses that overlay a Booking.com deal for hotels in Cardiff on top of summit views during a weekend hike. The potential for intrusive, unrequested information is practically bottomless, and the incentive for generating it is strong.

All notifications are a form of advertising, regardless of whether the notification is desired or not. They are flashing billboards in our homes, and every time an app sends a notification it is reminding us that it exists. It is trying to increase our interaction with it and our awareness of its brand. It is implanting and normalizing its presence in our lives. You may like knowing that Grandma has sent you a photo on iMessage, but that notification is also serving iMessage’s objectives. Advertising is inherently a hostile act against consumers. Its sole intent is to enact a change of behavior. Its unifying purpose is to erode consumers’ agency. It may not always be immoral, but it always costs you a tiny piece of your autonomy. Even when it isn’t obvious, behind every notification stands somebody with something to gain.

Our society has already lost much ground in this battle, and the paradigm of interruption is so entrenched that it may seem like a hopeless fight. All is not lost, for there is an emerging technology that is pursuing a different path: Smart Speakers, such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa. Setting aside the very real privacy concerns of these always-listening devices, they are wonderfully unintrusive. They sit in your home, dormant, until you want them to do something. You don’t need to go onto your phone and into an app to ask them, you just ask them to do it. Sometimes, they even do the thing you asked for. The inconsistency of execution is a technological growing pain, but at least the foundational interaction is you interrupting the device instead of the reverse.

It didn’t have to be this way. It is easy to imagine a reality where Google Home butts into your dinner conversation to let you know the current score of a sports game you don’t care about. Or, Alexa pulls your attention away from a book to let you know that “AS2M, Long Point Sharpener, Sharpens in 2 Steps; 2 Spare Blades includes. with Lead Pointers for 2mm and 3.2mm. Blue only” is on sale for 37 cents less than usual. Mercifully, these smart speakers only speak when spoken to. As we move toward ubiquitous computing, hopefully the interaction paradigm takes its cues from smart speakers rather than telephones.

It would be pleasant if technology grows less intrusive rather than more as our surroundings become smarter and smarter. A microwave doesn’t need a voice synthesizer or a touchscreen; there is no need to hear what a microwave has to say. Instead, perhaps a smart microwave should have one solitary button “COOK” and it would know precisely how long to cook the food placed inside without any extra user input. This sort of technology smooths the wrinkles of daily life without introducing novel ones, and is what we should target instead of a microwave that sings a song while your burrito is warmed up.

Microwave of the future, still cooks pizza rolls of the past

A life outfitted with unintrusive technology might at first appearances look very ordinary. Without flashing screens and LEDs, without chirps or beeps or chimes, the usual signifiers of high technology would be absent. To the casual observer, the only giveaway would be the frictionlessness of the experience. Every device would be simpler to operate, and information could be accessed and displayed when requested, but never thrust in front of you. And your phone would only ever make a sound when somebody was calling.


tags:  computers  ui  telephones  apps  unintrusive technology  phonesarebad.txt