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Designers Of Android And Dropbox On The Smartphone Of 2020

We spoke to lead designers from Google and Dropbox about the future of the phone. But where we arrived was the future of happiness.

Designers Of Android And Dropbox On The Smartphone Of 2020
[Photos: Damien Maloney for Fast Company]

“It’s funny. This seems to be the year that everybody’s bored of the phone,” says Matias Duarte, lead designer of Android at Google.

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We’re on stage at Fast Company‘s Innovation Uncensored conference in San Francisco, talking about the future of the smartphone–or as I headlined the talk, The Smartphone of 2020. Gentry Underwood, lead designer at Dropbox, is here, too.

The discussion warms up as I ask if we’re going to move beyond the touchscreen rectangle that Apple made so famous with the iPhone. Duarte staunchly defends the rectangle, pointing out that it’s a form as old as Sumerian tablets, and valuable because of the way it can organize information. He warns that “all innovation comes from solving problems” rather than falling into the “very common trap” of “looking for bright, shiny things.” Underwood admits that these things are tough to speculate about, because they require a visionary–a Steve Jobs–to make the leap and show us something that’s only obvious in retrospect. “We take it as a given that every phone is a touch surface, glass, and a rectangle, but there was a period of time that that was far from the case,” Underwood says.

Soon, Duarte lays out his vision. The future of the smartphone is less about an industrial design shift than it is connecting the phone’s experience to every other screen that exists in your life (the TV, car, and the watch). He explains:

I had an experience a year ago where i was going to have the most awesome digital vacation ever. I had a phone, I had a tablet, I had a laptop, I even had Google Glass. It was going to be amazing, because I was going to have the perfect digital device for every moment in my life. In Hawaii. I was going to capture every photo, I was going to know all the cool places to eat. I was going to do research on my big screen with my keyboard.

It was terrible! It was way worse than when I all I had was a phone. The reason why was because crossing the boundaries between those screens was so painful. …It was totally broken…[But] when services actually work seamlessly across all these screens that are available, you’re going to be like, oh my god, obviously.


Underwood chimes in with a more cautious take on a future in which all of our screens are connected.

There’s a flipside to all this stuff. When everything’s a screen, we run the risk of separating ourselves from Hawaii. We’re getting to a place where we might as well still be here and not on vacation because we’re disconnected from the things which make life worth living.

I think that’s actually a pretty big design opportunity. The technology’s going to keep pushing no matter what. We’re going to have more and more abilities going forward. I think the opportunities around design are figuring out which of those things are actually going to make life more rich, meaningful, and fundamentally good. I think it’s important we hold onto that as we think about the proliferation of screens. That could actually be pretty detrimental.

So the question I toss out is: While these screens have the promise of making us more productive, can they make us happier–and will the market reward happiness? Duarte responds with a great moment of reflection.

You feel a little bit like an arms dealer at times. ‘I just make the guns! I didn’t make you guys shoot each other! What, you created this horrible social malaise where people are totally connected all the time?’

No, you have kind of a responsibility. It’s hard to know how you can engage in that. One of the things I try to be aware of in the design work my team does is think about attention, and some of the recent problems we worked on, we thought a lot about attention, attention management, what can we do to give the users more control.

It seems some of this problem is insurmountable using traditional approaches. You just can’t expect some people to self-regulate in that way, or to have a fully formed understanding of what knobs and levers they should turn to get things right. Just putting your phone on vibrate in the movie theater is clearly an unsolvable problem. We can’t count on people to do that. So we should give up! You know, why don’t we have the machines help us do that? We’ve developed a notification agent, where a service can come in and rank notifications. I think that kind of speaks to the future where attention management is going to need machines to understand context, and help us understand what to elevate and suppress for a period of time.

I interject that he’s proposing limiters, like cars that won’t let us drive 120 mph, not because the engine isn’t capable of it, but because we can’t drive that fast safely. His response:

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It’s something that should be under your control. You should be able to say, today I’m going to the race track, I want to drive 120 mph. Turn off that limiter. Or, I want to be more mindful, so please, computer, help me during the weekend to not be so interrupt-driven.

Underwood offers a closing thought:

I guess my hope is that as consumers we’ll also demand experiences that don’t disconnect us too far from life. Maybe that’s too idealistic. I find some hope in the difficulty that [Google] Glass has seen, for example, penetrating the market. It’s creepy, I think, to see a person wearing a piece of glass over their eye. Unless, of course, it’s good old-fashioned glasses. There’s something about not knowing whether or not they’re actually looking at me or are lost in the web that’s a bit terrifying.

I hope as we push these screens forward, we do it with an attention to what makes life meaningful.There’s some responsibility in all of us to do that, both as consumers, and the people creating the tools we use moving forward.

To hear the full talk go here or click below.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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