Design for misuse

Last Friday, New Yorker editor David Remnick interviewed Apple design chief Jony Ive as part of the magazine’s TechFest. Midway through the conversation came an interesting (and widely reported) exchange in which Ive expressed some regret about people’s use of his most celebrated creation, the iPhone:

Remnick: There’s a ubiquity about the iPhone and its imitators. And I wonder, … do you have any sense of how much you’ve changed life and the way daily life is lived, and the way our brains work? And how do you feel about it? Is it pure joy? Are you ambivalent about it in any way?

Ive: No, there’s — there’s certainly an awareness. I mean, I tend to be so completely preoccupied with what we’re working on at the moment. That tends to take the oxygen. Like any tool, you can see there’s wonderful use and then there’s misuse. …

Remnick: How can — how can they be misused? What’s a misuse of an iPhone?

Ive: I think perhaps constant use.

Remnick: Yes.


It’s good to see Ive admitting that there may be a problem with people’s compulsive use of smartphones. But, as Business Insider‘s Kif Leswing and others have pointed out, there’s something cynical about the designer’s attempt to shift the blame to the owners of the iPhone for “misusing” it. Remnick didn’t follow up by asking Ive to describe particular design decisions that he and his team have made to deter the iPhone’s “constant use,” but it would have been a fair question, and I’m pretty sure Ive wouldn’t have had much of an answer.

Everything we know about the iPhone and its development and refinement suggests it has been consciously and meticulously designed and marketed to encourage people to use it as much as possible, to treat it, even, as a fetish. Here, for example, is how Apple is promoting the new iPhone X at its web store:

If Apple’s “vision” has always been to create a phone “so immersive the device itself disappears into the experience,” it’s hard to credit Ive’s suggestion that people are misusing it by using it immersively. If “constant use” is a misuse of the iPhone, then the device has been designed for misuse. And the future we’re supposed to welcome will be one in which the smartphone becomes all the more encompassing, the line between gadget and experience blurring further.

If Ive is sincere in his belief that people should be more deliberate in their use of smartphones — and I believe he is — I’m sure he could find elegant ways to nudge people in that direction. One obvious possibility is to change the way the iPhone handles notifications. (I would guess Ive didn’t foresee how app makers, including Apple itself, would come to abuse the iPhone’s notification function, but I assume he would acknowledge that torrents of notifications push people to use the phone constantly.)

The iPhone does have a “Do Not Disturb” setting that turns off tactile and audio notification alerts (though it still allows notifications to appear on the home screen), but that setting is turned off by default. To put it a different way, the iPhone’s default setting is “Disturb.” That could be reversed in the next iOS update. The default setting could be changed so that all notifications are turned off, requiring the user to make a conscious choice to turn on notifications, preferably app by app. And when the user turns on notifications, a notice might appear warning of the dangers in overusing the device.

If Apple took steps to discourage the “constant use” of its most popular product, might that not put a small dent in the company’s profits? Probably so, but let me leave you with one other thing Ive said in the interview:

Ive: Steve [Jobs] was very clear that the goal of Apple was not to make money. And we were very, very disciplined and very clear about how we configured our goals.

Image: Apple.