A Disturbing Default – Our devices are conditioning us for distraction.


I recently upgraded my now “ancient” iPhone 4 to the latest and greatest iOS 7. After being underwhelmed by the initial announcements and demos of this software revamp I’ve been pleasantly surprised by general look, responsiveness, utility and attention to detail in the system.

By far my favorite feature is Control Center, the ability to swipe up a panel that provides quick access to the most used controls on the phone. Android users have enjoyed a similar feature for a while and I first used it on an Android Galaxy Nexus device that I occasionally use mainly as a media consumption device. It quickly became a convenience that I missed on my iPhone.

While toying with this feature the other day I noticed the particularly prominent location of the “Do Not Disturb” button in the UI. I’m willing to bet the vast majority of iPhone users are completely unaware of this feature and even those in the know question it’s very existence.

When you tap the crescent moon adorned button little message displays: “Do Not Disturb: On”. This is a subtle clue to just how deeply ingrained distraction has become in our most pervasive technologies. Let me walk you through the implications.

  1. The default mode of phones is “Do Not Disturb: Off”, or in other words, “Please Disturb Me”. This is troubling in and of itself that distraction has become our preferred or default mode.
  2. The words to enable this feature are overwhelmingly negative, “DO NOT” and “DISTURB” taken by themselves are in general repulsive and when put together form a trifecta of avoidance. Why would anyone want to click that?
  3. The language ironically acknowledges that the behaviors enabled by default are in fact “disturbing” as opposed to being helpful, pleasant, supportive or in general positive.
  4. The crescent moon icon implies this is something to be used at night, while you are sleeping, unconscious, unreachable, unproductive, uninterruptible. Hmmm.

Subtleties, I know, but given Apple’s commitment to all things designed and the gargantuan effort in terms of time and money invested in an update like this, I think it’s worth taking a second to read the tea leaves. Maybe all of this is evidence of the apex of a technology ecosystem built on monetizing distraction. Peak Distraction? I certainly hope so, for our kid’s sake.

Yes, it would be fantastic if the distraction-free mode this button enables eventually became the expected default and tapping the frowning-face button revealed a “Distractions: On” message. But even better would be the evolution of these designs, technologies and business models that rely on them to eliminate the need to interrupt the lives of it’s users, to be smart enough to learn the optimal times to deliver the correct information in order to minimize distraction and maximize value for both the users in front and companies behind these amazing products.


Post Script

I don’t mean to pick on iOS here. It was actually the fact that this setting became much more convenient that prompted this reflection. Almost all of the most popular technology products today default to their most distracting modes.

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Parallel Entrepreneur | Coder | Runner | Ariel’s Husband | Denali & Orion’s Dad

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