Minimum Viable Connectivity

I remember about 15 years ago — before the launch of the iPhone — thinking quite resolutely that internet-connected phones were just a really unexciting transition phase between the desktop internet and immersive technologies like contact lenses and brain implants. We knew where we already were: amazing high bandwidth experiences on the desktop, and it seemed pretty clear where we were going in a couple of decades: even better experiences with no visible hardware whatsoever.

The new class of experiences on mobile phones at the time, however, was uninspiring. Palm Treos with barely functional browsers on them. Blackberries that handled email but little else well. T9 keyboards that were a pain to use. Barely any designers wanted to work on this stuff. It wasn’t very fun to create, use, or even tell anyone you worked on.

When the iPhone came along in 2007, it was the first mobile device that was fun to design for and fun to use for a wide variety of things. As it grew more and more useful, I began to think of internet-connected phones as quite a bit more exciting but still ultimately a transition state to full cyborg land. It seems inconceivable that in 10 or 20 years, we will still be staring down at these glass rectangles instead of directly at the world with whatever augmented reality experiences we choose in between.

As phones have gotten more comically large and the services on them more tragically addictive over the past few years, I’ve found myself wondering if there is more value in letting some of this connectivity go. Clearly smartphones provide a lot of value for us, but what is the true cost of all this convenience? Being able to receive a text from your spouse while you’re at the supermarket is valuable, but the same device that delivers you that text can deliver a social network notification while you’re driving that ends up killing you or others.

Attempting to quantify the large and small harm caused by smartphone use is a big project better suited to places like Tristan Harris’ Center for Humane Technology, but you don’t need to quantify it to admit it’s doing you some amount of harm.

There is no shortage of advice about how to make your phone less addictive. Turn off a bunch of notifications. Flip on Do Not Disturb. Use Black & White mode. Delete social networking apps. It’s all good advice, but for me, having that giant, heavy glass brick in my pocket is a constant reminder of what’s at my fingertips.

What I’ve really grown to want is less at my fingertips.

Minimum viable connectivity.

Wherever I happen to be, I want the least amount of potential digital distractions and appholes around me. It’s no different than the concept of eating healthier. When you want to lose weight, you don’t keep a bunch of junk food in your pockets and just promise to never open it. You remove junk food from your house completely.

Until recently, there was no great way to stop carrying your smartphone with you without giving up a ton of benefits. Over the past two weeks, however, I’ve begun using an Apple Watch without a phone almost all day long, and it’s been great. It’s introduced exactly the amount of digital friction I need in my life and I don’t imagine going back to hyper-connected smartphone world anytime soon.

“The best way to guarantee success is by preemptively engineering systems to reduce friction for positive habits, and increase friction for negative ones.” — Craig Mod, from the great piece I linked to above

I love that I am still generally reachable by phone or text when I wear it. I love that I can still navigate with maps. I love that I can track my runs without third party services and listen to podcasts along the way. I love that I can see when it’s about to rain.

And I love that that’s about all I can do. I don’t mind that texts are a little harder to send. I don’t even mind that there’s no camera. If I’m on vacation in an interesting place, I will surely take my phone, but do I really need to be taking more photos around town? Probably not. This is the point many people will break with me on this whole strategy, but try it. You may be surprised.

In terms of things I don’t like about about this experiment so far, it really just comes down to a couple of flaws with the watch itself: the LTE radio is pretty spotty and the Apple Podcast app is a usability disaster, both on the phone and the watch. Because the radio is weak, you really need to make sure anything you want to listen to is downloaded already, and because the apps are so bad, it’s very hard to ensure that actually happens. You’ll generally have some podcasts downloaded and ready to listen to but they just aren’t always the ones you expected. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Even with those problems, I still feel great about this less-connected road I’m going down. Somewhat surprisingly, I don’t even feel like I’m missing out on anything.

The hyper-connected future will probably still happen, but the form it will take doesn’t feel so inevitable to me anymore. I’ve learned in these two weeks alone that I don’t actually want every distracting digital experience in the world at my fingertips. I only want what is helpful and stays out of the way.

The last time I wore a watch was in high school, and I distinctly remember how excited I was to finally get a cell phone my junior year.

27 years later, I’m just as excited now to do the opposite.

One comment on “Minimum Viable Connectivity”. Leave your own?
  1. Nick Hallam says:

    Nice post, Mike :)

    I like the term MVC a lot. It talks to something I’ve been thinking about for a few years… what is the ideal amount of connection? Where zero isn’t great, but what most people have today isn’t either.

    A couple of years back, I did an experiment. Put the iPhone in a drawer and tried to by the ‘dumbest’ phone I could and use exclusively for three weeks.

    That period was the first time I’ve felt like a tourist in my own city. No maps. No internet. No train timetables. Added to that, the keyboard was so hard/slow to use that I just didn’t text anyone.

    The TL;DR of the whole thing was that I missed music, maps, and a camera.

    I didn’t miss texting, almost any other app, searching.

    I’m a fan of what the team at Light Phone are doing in this space.

    The experiment taught me that feeling ‘too connected’ is both a hardware and a software problem.

    Even if we improve the OS and the apps that are on them, the HW can still vibrate, know our location, etc.

    In both cases, I think we’ve pushed the boundaries too far. Our hardware can do too much and the OS and apps take advantage of it – and we’re the losers.

    It’s not entirely clear where we go from here either. Tristan and co. are doing a great job and I’m following their work closely. But I’d love to see companies like Apple start addressing these things in their products with changes to their hardware – a less is more phone.

    One other thing I’ve been thinking about too is some kind of app-store warning system. In the same way Apple tell you if an app has in-app payments, I wonder if they could also flag things like:

    • While free, this app has an advertising-based business model
    • This app is in the top 5% of most daily-opened apps globally
    • This might be using addictive design patterns
    • People frequently uninstall and reinstall this app

    Rough ideas, but hopefully you get the idea. All apps are not created equally and consumers should be told that.

    Final thought is that last year I switched to VSCO for most of my photo editing and posting. I love it. I never feel like my mind is being attacked when I’m there. I’ve not paid anything for it yet, but I think I will. After a couple of weeks using it, you can just tell that they respect you and don’t need you to open it daily, weekly or ever. Ad-based business models = root of much of this evil.

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