What’s the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? Turn off the alarm clock of your smartphone, turn around and take another 5 minutes to end your dream? Or turn off the alarm clock and note the new email, Skype, WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook notifications? What’s the last thing you do before you fall asleep? Hug your partner? Or check out the latest news on your mobile phone? Of you have children, we all constantly tell them not to spend so much time in front of their computers and stare on their mobile screens all the time. But if we are honest, we have to confess that we are becoming more and more addicted to our screens as well. And do you know why? Because our phones are slot machines! Yes, they are designed to operate like slot machines! It's all about the notion of 'reward' - let me explain...

Why 'reward' is addictive

Whenever we check our latest notifications, we are driven by the urge to know "What am I going to get next?“. Pulling, scrolling down, swiping left or right to refresh, tapping the red notifications, all that is just like pulling down the hand gear of a slot machine and waiting for the reward – in our case new messages, new fotos, new likes...

I can hear you saying, yes maybe, but I’m not a gamer! I’m not addicted to my phone nor slot machines! Maybe you are not. But the truth is, most people must be, because slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined!

And if tech designers want to maximize addictiveness, all they need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximized when the rate of reward is most variable.

The above is not all mine. I’m paraphrasing and quoting here an amazing and deeply impressive young man called Tristan Harris. He was previously a Design Ethicist at Google and left the company to lead Time Well Spent, a movement to align technology with our humanity. Time Well Spent aims to transform the race for attention by revealing how technology hijacks our minds, and demonstrating how better incentives and design practices will create a world that helps us spend our time well.


You may wonder how I could be so deeply impressed by his theory and activities while being a creator of mobile device-experiences myself? The reason is because I’m still passionate about the linear stories we created in the old times of pure audio tours on cassette players. They connected the visitor in the purist, most immersive way to the art works around them, enhancing their experience and therefore – in the words of Tristan Harris - making him spend his time well. Also when we started to develop screen-based multimedia tours, we immediately built in directions, that told the visitor to look at his screen only for visual information that deepened his understanding of the artwork in front of him. And even today, when creating games and interactives, they have to be meaningful in a sense that they foster and require an attentive exploration of the original to be played successfully. But the greatest joy for me is seeing the long form audio walks coming back – now combined with invisible sophisticated location aware technology. They respond to the call for more "eyes up“-experiences in the museums, that we observe, support and have successfully introduced at the SFMoMA and, most recently, at the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City.

Location Aware Storytelling is a visitor experience based on automatically triggered content related to the visitor’s location. This allows visitors to keep their eyes up and be more immersed in the experience, the story and the space around them. Interaction with a device is kept to a minimum, visitors can actually put it in their pocket while listening to a well-crafted story that creates a unique and almost cinematic audio experience, in which the soundscapes and narration guide the visitor continuously, while they are walking, actually moving, at their own pace. Visitors can even synchronize their devices, making sure they share the same experience at the same moment. This is technology used not only for a more real and therefore more intense connection to art, but also created for a more human future. And it ticks almost all the boxes of Tristan Harris' design checklist below: