How Do I Get Back Those Five Minutes?

When was the last time you said, "I'm so glad I spent those past five minutes doing ______(fill in the blank here)". Speaking for myself, I don't tend to highlight the good five-minute things in I spent throughout the day, I tend to focus on the things that wasted five minutes.

For example, when my good friend repeats a story I've already heard. How do I get back those 5 minutes?

Or the time I’ve taken a wrong turn when trying to fight the Silicon Valley traffic through the 101 or Bay Bridge or GG or basically any roads in the Bay Area.

Or the small talk at the beginning of a meeting and of course the meeting gets cut short at the end...if only I had back those five minutes!!!

And let’s not forget about all of those five-minute slots of time that I'm on FB or Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter?!! How do I get back all those thousands of times of reading about something that will make very little difference to the betterment of my world…

So how did we get to this place? Thank the developers of the apps, news and social tools we use every day.

A New Commitment to Time Well Spent

I've recently committed myself to develop a deeper understanding of the concept Time Well Spent.  It's a movement that was started in Silicon Valley by Tristan Harris (ex-Google employee with the cool title Design Ethicist).

Tristan has taken on the humongous task of helping engineers at companies to be more deliberate and conscious of the time consumers spend on their technology. (Just look around, there is no small talk on BART anymore, it’s FIP (Face in Phone)).  Tristan is also making the speaking rounds on Ted, Charlie Rose and other shows to get the general public aware of what he calls a critical emergency in attention manipulation to the detriment of society. See his most recent Ted Talk here:

While success metrics at most of the big tech companies (FB, Twitter, etc...) use DAU and MAU (Daily Active Users and Monthly respectively) and/or other metrics to drive user engagement and attention, they are calculating a users’ willingness to stay on a hamster wheel in their product. And to sustain this quarter over quarter, product managers come up with new ways for users to remain in this trap.

Here are some examples of user manipulation:

Facebook: notifications that someone liked your comment so that you'll open up the app again and see who liked it and then maybe stay awhile longer;

SnapChat: Chat Streaks that keep track of how many chat conversations in a row you've made with a friend;

Youtube, Facebook, and Netflix: Video views in a sequential fashion (did you notice that one video rolls right into the next, even if you didn't ask for it?);

So to answer my original question, tech companies and their investors got us here. When you think about it, these are all things that the company wants (your attention), but at what cost to you? Tristan quotes a study by Gloria Mark (UC Irvine) that says that when we are distracted or interrupted it takes 23 minutes for us to regain our focus. And if in the next hour we are being interrupted many times, in the following hour, we'll self-interrupt ourselves. He calls this bulldozing our attention.

Having transitioned to the startup world and a founder of software at Promontory Brands, I feel a huge responsibility to help people get off of our web app, Sky. Of course, success will be measured by the number of people who adopt our tool but at the same time, we are challenging ourselves to design features that are accountable to "Time Well Spent" and "Human Centered Design" -

Some examples we might ask our users to evaluate themselves against might include: 'Am I doing my best work?' 'Am I proud of my contribution?’ 'Am I making others better?'.

Other examples of questions we'll ask ourselves include: 'Are user choices transparent and beneficial to them' 'Can users control their attention in positive ways' 'Will a user consider this time well spent?' And how can we get people there by spending LESS time in our tool, not more? 

What if engagement could be gauged another way - like how much someone says they really like using the app? Or the fact that they got to spend more time with their family because the app saved them one hour of their day?  These are mushy at best and hard to quantify. Yet, if developers and tech startups re-imagined their product to do more than saving time, to make a user happy - so that they can say it was time well spent, wouldn’t we all be saying, that was a great way of spending the last 5 minutes? Shouldn’t we be asking these tech companies, what are you doing to value my time? At the heart of customer empathy or user centered design should be the value of your time. Right?

I know, I know, you’re asking yourself as you’re reading this, how do I get back those 5 minutes?