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  • Writer's pictureAdam

Why Some Apps Need a Pause Button

Should there be an off-switch? A pause button? Or maybe a seatbelt is the right metaphor. Is there some way to nudge us away from retention-seeking apps?

We had an assignment for class the other day where we conducted an anthropological study, which is a fancy way of saying we sat in the university library and watched people trying to do homework. I italicize "trying" because one girl checked her phone 19 times in 15 minutes, and the checks weren't brief. I estimated that she did ~1.5 minutes of work. The guy sitting next to her doubled her rate of efficiency by doing 3 minutes of work. Another guy had his phone in his lap watching a tv show while very occasionally typing out a homework assignment on the laptop in front of him. I'd record that as zero minutes of work.

This isn't a novel observation: almost everyone I see, myself very much included, is facing a screen more than half their waking hours. Unwittingly, it's become an engrained part of our daily life; for everything from reading the news to opening the garage door, we rely on a device to accomplish the next thing we're about to do, and barely think about it beyond the minor pride of living more conveniently than we might have to otherwise.

Honestly, it's fine most the time.

That is, until you're teaching a few friends the complicated rules to a board game and one of them starts writing a text message so you have to re-explain. Or your significant other is showing you a movie they love and you get that vibration, pull out your phone, read the text, check Twitter and LinkedIn and email, make sure your alarm is set for the morning... and you can feel a disappointed glower from the person sitting near you.

So partially it's about quality time, both with our families, friends, etc, and ourselves. Partially, it's about liberation, because it's starting to feel a bit like we're living in device jail. This summer, my phone was stolen in Portugal, and I didn't have any other piece of tech. It was very difficult to get to my next destination. I was hand-drawing maps, going to multiple stores to find a printer for my airline confirmation. I had to ask near-strangers to order me an Uber and paid them in cash.

It's becoming harder and harder to live without tech, and I think that's something that should be discussed. There's no going backwards, but we might need some tactics to help us land the omni-screen plane.


A revenue-seeking app's core purpose is to...make revenue. Some apps charge; other apps are free. Apps that charge don't care as much about retention, but the ones that are free rely on us to pay for a la carte services and/or use their app consistently to convert data and eyeballs to ad dollars.

Viewed through a glass rosily, retention is the result of a product which fulfills users' needs.

The app saves us time, so we keep coming back.

It saves us money, so we keep coming back.

It helps us find a significant other, so...we keep coming back?

The darker view of retention is addiction. Gamification is a powerful tool, and many apps know the visual, audio, and pattern-based triggers that appeal to our senses and get us to open and reopen apps which use up hours of our day. Many use tactics similar to slot machines, narrowing in on our dopamine release triggers, which range from lights and sounds to gamification and notifications.

Netflix's quasi-documentary The Social Dilemma did a good job of pointing this out. At its core, it discusses some of the many ways that our digital solutions can lead to new problems.

For example:

Emails made communication faster, but now we might spend hours distracted each day checking to see if a long-awaited response has arrived (I just went through this while waiting for a company's offer following an interview, checking my email almost unconsciously every few minutes during class).

Text messages made chatting even faster than emails, and now, in my opinion, we tend to over-communicate—sometimes for good (birthday wishes!), sometimes for not so good (Twitter replies, drunk texting).

Dating apps... to paint a quick scene: you go on a nice date with someone you met through, say, Bumble. You want to see her again; she wants to see you again. Each of you delete the app. Perfect! Well, within a day or two, you start getting these emails that tell you that "you've got a new match," or "you have this many Bumble notifications."

Despite knowing that you've deleted the app, and probably aware that you've gone on a date recently, they still want you to redownload, thus severely worsening the odds of any given relationship to work out, since you're left wondering...who am I missing out on?

Of course, some couples have no issue with this. They succeed regardless of the app's communications. I just wonder how many people really favor this system—in a way, the app that set up your relationship wants it to fail. Personally, due to their addictive features, I had to ask dating apps to ban my account, since I was wasting a lot of time scrolling, dating, and not interacting with people in my daily life.

So here are a few proposed solutions, albeit highly untenable ones. Fun to think about, though.

  • Email. Offer a setting where you are limited to only checking your email from 8am - 9am and from 4pm - 5pm. Or offer a setting where you can easily pause email checking for a day or two, similar to how you pause your physical mail when you go out of town.

  • Text Messages. A bit more wild, but what if you could opt to being restricted to, say, ten text messages a day? I bet we'd use them more wisely.

  • Dating Apps. Have an option to permanently ban yourself (I did this recently by emailing the support staff). Or have a "I want to make this work" button that irrevocably turns off your account and all notifications for two months. Heck, I'd probably even pay $5 for that.

I think there is a lot of room for improvement in tools for app self-moderation. People have free will and can always find workarounds to self-imposed obstacles, but it'd be nice to have an easy option to opt-out, even if just for a few days here and there.

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