Achieving Your Goals Down On The Digital Farm
What if I told you a little digital pet could force couch potatoes off their bums and into jogging gear?
As humans, we don’t always do what’s good for us, often choosing idler pursuits over, say, exercise or self-improvement. Though, I can’t say I’m an offender in this respect myself!
Sometimes, we know what we should be doing but merely don’t do it because we’re too busy, tired, distracted — or simply downright lazy. Other times, our self-neglect stems from a failure to recognise the behaviours necessary for optimum wellbeing, performance and development.
Whatever the case, one of my key interests in the field of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) is helping find effective answers to the following question:
How can we enhance the lives of humans through user-centred design?
Across my career, I’ve been using my knowledge of behavioural psychology, applying the theory of behavioural economics to assist in the design of interactive computing systems that satisfy needs users aren’t meeting themselves, or might not even know they have, and that support them in their personal and working lives.
In essence, without tooting my own horn, this means I understand people — and their habits — better than they understand themselves!
Dozens of the projects I’ve worked on have been smartphone-based. And for good reason — these devices currently rule our world. Research by RescueTime found that most users are glued to their phone screens an average of 3 hours and 15 minutes a day and over 4 and a half hours a day for the top 20%. Moreover, most people look at their phone an average of 58 times a day.
Even if these screen time stats seem scarily dark, they’re incredibly helpful in exploring ideas to nudge humans in the right direction. In other words, there are ways we can take our negative, toxic relationship with phones — one I discussed in a recent post around kids — and turn it into a positive experience.
I know this sounds quixotic, but it’s not — trust me! Many of the solutions developed by my former agency Foviance turned out to be incredibly successful in complementing the lives of our clients’ — both public and private sector — users.
Although I’m no longer with the agency, instead working for EY, I’m still consumed by generating new and better ideas. My latest was inspired by a thought I recently spared for a daft (?) gadget my kids used to play with in their earlier years — the Tamagotchi.
If this doesn’t ring any bells, these handheld, egg-shaped gizmos were one of the biggest toy crazes of the late 1990s and early 2000s. As addictive as smartphones are today, they compelled an entire generation to spend their free time caring for tiny digital pets, looking after their “physical” and “mental” health, and ensuring good behaviour. Users would feed and play with their virtual animals, administer medicine when they were sick, and even issue punishments when they stepped out of line.
The Tamagotchi recently made a minor comeback too, and while the last thing the current generation needs is yet another screen to command their time, virtual pets could be how we get people off the sofa and moving more often.
Let me tell you how.
What we can do is take those 58 times a day people look at their phone — whether subconsciously, or consciously to check messages and emails, kill transit time, or whatever — and make them work for us.
Plenty of wellness apps like Apple Health already exist, but how frequently do we actually use the stack of features they offer once their novelty value and our original enthusiasm dwindle? And how easily do those who do continue to use them digest the quantitative info the apps furnish them with? Health and wellness apps rely on conscious decisions, plus the proactivity some of us just aren’t equipped with. Some of us need that extra push!
This is where a Tamagotchi-inspired system, which would run in the phone’s background, enters the stage. At the moment, considering the extent to which phone manufacturers control home screen design, likely this could only be made available on a highly customisable home screen alternative like Nova Launcher for Android.
The difference between the Tamagotchi and this little digital creature is the latter wouldn’t be there for us to care for, but to remind us — again, consciously or subconsciously — of how well we are ourselves.
You see, our data would determine its health and behaviour. Without the need for our input, the relevant app would collect info on how many steps we take in a day, how many stairs we ascend, how many takeaways we visit, how often we go to the pub, and much more.
With every glance, the condition of the user’s “pet” would subtly indicate the status of their own wellbeing, encouraging them to open the app. That’s where users would then find the quantitative data that lets them see how great or poorly they’re doing regarding any given health goal.
If the wee critter is full of beans, svelte and alert, we’re all good. If it appears sluggish, we’ll know to take the stairs in the morning instead of the elevator. If she’s on the paunchy side, we’d better hit up a salad bar over KFC at lunch. And if she’s sloshed, then perhaps let’s skip that habitual post-work G&T. What, not even G with slimline T? Nuh uh — sadly, it’s water all the way.
Worst case scenario, if the creature gives up the ghost, then I’m afraid we’d be looking at a total life overhaul.
The scope of the concept could be even broader. For instance, say we ditch the idea of a single digital pet denoting all aspects of our wellbeing and development. In its place, we might have a small farm, each animal in it a visual representation of a different aspect of our physical and mental health, or even a different personal objective completely unrelated to wellbeing.
Basically, we’d exploit screen time, harnessing guilt and the desire for happiness to urge people to get up and at ’em, with the happy knock-on effect of reducing screen time.
That said, the success of such a system would ironically depend on screen time in order for users to learn the meaning of each digital creature, and on each individual user’s ability or motivation to do so.
On top of this concern, we need to question whether observing the state of their pets could truly lead to people launching the app and later taking action to turn around the disheartening stats they find there. Even if it could, would the feature be a fleeting fad like the Tamagotchi or health apps? Or could we expect it to result in permanent changes in behaviour?
Perhaps a narrative, level-based element — like in video games — would be necessary to keep users engaged for more than a few weeks at a time.
It’s worth noting that I’m not entirely sure if this idea is the first of its kind. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d suggest probably not! If you know the concept has already been floated, please point me in the right direction as I’d love to know the degree to which it has been expanded to date. If not, feel free to pilfer every suggestion you find in this post.
Just make sure I get a cut of the profits, please. And no, I don’t take payment in Tamagotchis. Nice try!