Anti-Social App Design


My good friend Dan Appelquist recent wrote a fascinating blog post on solipsism as a design decision.

He has a set of Lifx Internet Controlled Lightbulbs. They're great fun, but have some seriously screwy ideas about how people live. One key design of the app is to allow you to automatically switch off all your lights when you exit your house. That's pretty nifty, right?

I am still chuckling at the mental image of all the lightbulbs in my house shutting down when I leave the house leaving my wife and kids to complete their morning routine in darkness.

Ah. Yes. Family. People tend to acquire partners. Occasionally smaller people spring out of nowhere. Sometimes it's just the humble housemate stealing your dishes sharing your living space.

According to the UK's Office of National Statistics - only 28% of households contain a single occupant. The majority of people live with other people. Hell, I suspect a fair few of those single households have occasional visitors and overnight guests.

So, why do so many apps and services seem to be utterly hostile to their users' diverse lifestyles?

Asimo robot giving the Up Yours sign

Pause The TV When I Receive A Phone Call

I use the Yatse Remote Control App for Android. It has a really useful plugin which pauses whatever I'm watching when I receive a phone call. It even displays the name of the person who is calling on the TV.

This makes a fairly radical assumption: When the TV is being watched, it is only ever me watching it.

Take the following scenario. I'm busy cooking up some spicy vegetarian curry in the kitchen. My wife, after a hard day's work, is watching Game of Thrones in the lounge. Suddenly, I receive an urgent call from work! Now, my wife's viewing pleasure is interrupted and she has to scrabble for the remote control before she can watch watch more beheadings.

How can we fix this? Do we need some complicated pop-up which asks every time the TV is on who is watching it? Should I set up a webcam with facial recognition to detect who is staring at the goggle-box? Maybe we can change add an option to the phone screen which says "Answer and Pause"? Could I use Bluetooth proximity beacons to work out which room my phone is in? What if the phone's microphone listens out for the TV? How about... How about... How about...

There is no perfect solution to this. It requires a degree of subtly which simply isn't quite feasible yet. Users demand a near-human level of empathy and understanding; "know what I need without me having to interact".

This problem is not solvable. Not yet.

We're at a near-future inflection point where we can see what will be possible, but hate that it is not.

Dan is absolutely right. We need to design services which account for mixed households, dodgy WiFi connections, visitors to the house, emergencies, delusions, and mistakes.

As users, we have to realise that our devices aren't sentient. There's no point in getting annoyed with an app for failing to "Do what I mean - not what I say!"

The future is coming slowly. Before too long we'll just assume that our phones will automatically ignore phone calls when the TV is showing the final of the Great British Bake Off - and that our lightbulbs will keep track of how many people are in each room.

For now, though, we have to sigh and make to with this wondrous technology which isn't quite good enough. Humans, eh? We're picky bastards.

One thought on “Anti-Social App Design

  1. Do we need some complicated pop-up which asks every time the TV is on who is watching it? Should I set up a webcam with facial recognition to detect who is staring at the goggle-box?

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