Digital Wellness: what does it mean for Android Developers?

Digital Wellbeing will reduce the time spent in apps. Good news or bad?

Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, wants us to have JOMO. On stage in 2018, he announced plans to encourage Android users to put down their phones and experience the ‘the joy of missing out.’ The encouragement might seem a little strange. After all, Google – like every other tech titan – has spent the last decade perfecting the art of smartphone addiction.

But here’s what happened: it did too good a job. People now obsess over their devices. They can’t get to sleep. They walk into street lamps.

So the inevitable backlash came. ‘Something must be done!’ came the cry.

Well, something was done. In the Android-world, this was ‘Digital Wellbeing.’ Pichai first unveiled the product at Google IO in May 2018. The idea was to give users more control over how much they use their phones.

In a blog, Google outlined its thinking as follows.

“A sense of obligation has crept into tech. People want tools to break it. They want to be able to set aside their phones sometimes, not worry about missing anything absolutely urgent, and feel in control of their phone use. We have a responsibility to make that easier — to give people a way to reclaim their time and not feel tied to their devices.”

Hence Digital Wellbeing. It exists as a dashboard in Settings inside Android 9 and 10 and comprises a bunch of graphs that reveal…

  • Your app usage
  • Number of times you’ve unlocked your device
  • Number of notifications you’ve received
  • Times opened for each app

Armed with this info, the user can then set a timer on each app, schedule ‘Do Not Disturb’ periods, activate ‘Night Light’ and ‘Grayscale’ modes, and so on. Digital Wellbeing also integrates with Family Link so users can more easily set up parental controls.

Google unveiled the feature in May 2018, released in August the same year. At the time, Digital Wellbeing was only available as a beta on the Google Play Store for Pixel users. Later, it launched Digital Wellbeing as an app for multiple handsets from HMD, Moto, ASUS, Realme, and others.

Then, just a few weeks ago, Google went a little further. News emerged that the company had instructed any OEM wishing to preload Google Mobile Services (i.e., Play Store, Chrome, Gmail, Maps, YouTube, and so on) to prioritize Digital Wellbeing. On October 24, Google released several Digital Wellness apps.

More precisely, they have to:

  • Place Digital Wellbeing at the top level of Settings.
  • Have an on-boarding screen to invite users to set it up.
  • Include their own app that has the same basic features as Google’s solution (if they choose not to include Digital Wellbeing).

What does this mean? Well, since virtually all Android devices are pre-installed with Google services (outside of China⁠), then virtually all Android devices will go big on Digital Wellbeing.

Is this a good thing? 

Predictably, opinions differ. Some describe the feature as ‘nagware’ (software utility nagging users into upgrading or buying premium version with constant pop-ups or notifications). They don’t want any lectures from tech companies about how they spend their screen time.

Others think the move doesn’t go far enough. Tristan Harris is Google’s former design ethicist. He played a large part in kickstarting the recent backlash against tech and even founded the Centre for Humane Technology. He calls features like Digital Wellbeing ‘Band-Aids on a wound that needs a tourniquet.’ He believes the solution is not more self-monitoring, but a fundamental re-think of the way tech is designed.

The debate will rumble on.

In the meantime, what are the ramifications for developers? Many app creators might be alarmed at the thought of moderated app use, but the Calldorado community is well-placed to benefit from these new tools.

Calldorado’s Caller SDK does not send annoying push notifications that seek to trick users into more app usage. Instead, it adds value to the user during and after phone calls. Apps with the Caller SDK display information about who’s calling and connects the relevant information with the features of the app to drive user engagement.

The Caller SDK designed for apps that focus on making people more productive, such as note making and efficient communication. In other words – apps that help users get more done in less time. This is very much in the spirit of digital wellbeing.