Notify. Scroll. Close. Repeat…

The interface of a smartphone is like a giant switch which is always active. We live constantly with an irrational drive to deactivate it.

This excitement is not intrinsic to the use of the device, in the past, there were numerous design decisions that have led to a non-healthy relationship with our mobile phones. There are many people who, saturated by their daily use, have been forced to almost hack the default options offered by the terminals (deactivating notifications, activating accessibility options such as black and white mode, minimizing the number of applications installed …), all with the intention to recover their brains, and even avoid joint injuries in the hands.

But … How did it all begin? Why did the pioneers in the design of applications and mobile operating systems make such decisions?

Aza’s infinite soup

It runs the year 2006, the golden age of blogs. At that time the best way to learn about the news on our favourite sites was through the content aggregators (or RSS readers), a program that captures the syndication sources websites, notifying us about new content. There are still people who use them, but they are not very popular. At that time, most of them were desktop programs that had to be downloaded and installed, with interfaces plenty of panels, hierarchical trees with content folders, scrollbars… in short, a rather tedious experience.

A young Aza Raskin, who at that time worked at Humanized, developed together with his team a new paradigm for their RSS reader: the infinite scrolling, a functionality that allows the user to read content continuously without the need to make any effort to navigate.

Raskin devised this new paradigm with all his good intentions, in order the lost of the line of thought when the user was reading, thus avoiding to break the reading flow by diving through folders and navigation menus.

Its creator was inspired by a popular psychological experiment published a year before: The bottomless bowl of soup, based on the premise that if you give someone a bowl of soup that is automatically refilled through a secret mechanism, it will take more than usual. The subjects of the experiment, despite having consumed on average 73% more soup than the capacity of the bowl, did not have the sensation of having consumed more, neither they felt more satiated than those who had taken a normal amount of soup, simply because they had no visual cues that the soup was over.

These findings were consistent with the wisdom of the popular proverb: “eat before with the eyes rather than with the stomach.” Basically, if we put a lot of food on a plate, we usually tend to increase our habitual intake, since this influences our consumption expectations and reduces our self-control. Apparently, people use their eyes to count calories, instead of the memory of our stomachs.

12 years later, the same Raskin claimed in an BBC interview, that he felt guilty for having created this pattern of interaction, as it had spread as a standard in most social networks. Many designers, pressured by economic objectives and business models of their companies, had been forced to invent stratagems for people to invest more time in applications:

“To get the next round of financing, to increase the price of shares… the amount of time people invest in the application has to increase. So, when you put so much pressure on that number, you start inventing new ways for people to get hooked. “

In the same way that happens with food, the use of the infinite displacement pattern to load irrelevant content, took this stomach problem to our brain, saturating our minds with more information than we can assimilate.

Visual cues can lead a person to underestimate or overestimate the amounts of consumption, either food or junk information. By eliminating referential elements from the interfaces such as the scrollbar, pagination, or the page marks of the last visit, we are deceiving people, making them lose their control capacity and breaking one of the most basic mental models that exist: the conception that things usually have a limit or a capacity.

The problem is that this pattern of interaction has contributed to generate addictive behaviours, we don’t give time to our brain to assimilate the information, we simply keep scrolling with our thumbs compulsively, loading thus new content. Although infinite scrolling is intended for serendipity in contexts of leisure use (to explore a catalogue of films or a gallery of images), people don’t like to leave things half-way, we feel uncomfortable when we start something and do not finish it.

By leaving a task half-way we usually generate a certain concern in ourselves. When we complete a task, this tension is released and we feel relieved, generating certain well-being. When we perform a diagonal reading of content, by checking the size of a document to weigh our reading effort, frees us from that small task that we have imposed on ourselves.

But why this worry us so?

The memory of Bliuma’s waiter

Professional waiters have an incredible capacity to remember orders from different tables, no matter how complex they may be, they are always able to deliver them to the corresponding person. This ability caught the attention of the psychologist of the Gestalt and Soviet psychiatrist Bliuma Zeigárnik, who in the mid-1920s, after observing on a terrace a waiter who was able to keep several orders in his head.

This virtue did not seem to have much to do with a sustained mental effort, but rather with the ability to keep these incomplete tasks in the short-term memory. As more orders were generated, if they were not served or paid, the waiters seemed irritated.

Dr. Zeigarnik tried to reproduce this hypothesis by conducting experiments in her laboratory at the University of Berlin, under the supervision of Lev Vygotsky. During the study, the participants were asked to perform various tasks or puzzles, some of them were interrupted in the middle of the exercises and they were asked to start working on other tasks, which greatly disturbed the participants. When in the final interview subjects were asked to remember what tasks they had done, Zeigarnik concluded that people who had not completed tasks, besides being more restless, were more able to remember them in more detail than those who were allowed to complete them.

When we have several things to remember in our short-term memory (shopping lists, orders, numbers to do operations…), we have to list them continuously to retain them in our mind, otherwise they would disappear. This requires a lot of mental effort, which naturally increases with the size of the list. Our brain tends to remember only those tasks that are incomplete, otherwise, we would go crazy holding untranscendental details.

In addition, this concern can be maintained for a longer period, a weekend or even a vacation, since we tend to worry about those things that we have not managed to close.

Television writers know how to use this psychological weakness very well, it is the so-called cliffhanger effect, and the main reason why the majority of the first world population is hooked on the television series. In interaction Design, this effect is usually used by including progress bars, steps, task lists… incomplete visual elements that encourage us to continue with a process.

Remember me

Until the arrival of search engines like Google and afterwards the smartphones, people used to use more intensively physical objects to evoke our external memory, a memory that uses signals from the environment to help us remember: Shopping lists held by magnets in the fridge, class notes, books that evoke our ideas…

But now this external memory is not managed by us, we have delegated these capabilities to technology, forgetting all the information we think is irrelevant, having the certainty that whenever we need something, it will be available in search engines like Google, and in any case, when the time comes, we will receive an alert reminding us that it is time to go look for our children at school.

But anyway, these notifications, if remind us relevant tasks, are usually useful for our day to day, or at least this was the case at the beginning of smartphones. When Apple launched the iPhone, in the first version of iOS of 2007, notifications were only offered in the productivity applications of the system, basically were limited to text messages, missed calls and new emails. It took 2 years for push notifications to be offered to third-party applications, opening the Pandora’s box to a cacophony of notifications and inaugurating the attention economy era.

Our nervous system is optimized to perceive changes in the environment and to react in thousandths of a second, it’s a natural self-defence mechanism result from millions of years of evolution, which we share with the rest of the animal world. But unlike Aza’s soup, this has a limit, and it can become saturated by excess stimuli, generating hypersensitivity or even anaesthesia.

The funny thing is that, as much as we are aware of these mechanisms, it is very difficult for us to avoid these traps.

This piece was originally written in Spanish at Guindo’s blog:
Notifica. Desplaza. Cierra. Repite…

Interaction Designer, co-running Guindo Design.