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UX Design
7 minute read

Minimalist UX Design for Healthier Smartphone Engagement

It’s easy to waste too much time staring at our smartphones, but minimalist UX design can help users build healthier engagement habits.

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Even before the pandemic, many of us were working to curb our smartphone addictions. Now we’re using our phones more than ever.

Social media and games are the most notorious attention-grabbers, but push notifications, badges, sounds, and vibrations all create a sense of urgency that may not be warranted. And in-app advertising can derail you from your original purpose, inviting you to shop instead of whatever you opened the app to do. Multiply that by the two dozen (or more) apps you probably have, and it’s no wonder you may want to throw your phone out the nearest window.

“We [as designers] have to be smarter about your context and your understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish,” Doug Kim, Principal Content Design Manager for Microsoft Azure, told Toptal. Traditionally, product designers have required users to respond to the technology, Kim says, but it really has to be the other way around.

There are many simple controls already built into your phone that can help, like notification settings and Do Not Disturb. You can also use third-party productivity tools, like StayFocusd or Freedom, to help you limit your time on certain apps.

These solutions can work for some, but they require a degree of self-control that many apps are designed to subvert. Users are demanding more control over their digital experiences, and designers are developing minimalist UX strategies to promote healthier smartphone engagement.

Engagement Equals Value, but at What Cost?

Mobile apps run on engagement. Their business models revolve around how much time users spend in-app and how many times they return.

That’s because engagement measures how valuable users find the product or service. And for good reason: Highly engaged users are more likely to buy, return to, and share the app or service with friends, which leads to more profit for the business. In turn, businesses get loyal users.

In order for an app to meet its business goals, designers need to encourage users to stay focused on the product for as long as possible. Designers can achieve this by examining some or all of the following:

  • ​​Usability: Is the product easy to use?
  • ​​Look and Feel: Is the product attractive and intuitive?
  • ​​Emotion: Does the product provide compelling information or tell a story?
  • ​​Gamification: Does the product spark a sense of completion by using game mechanics such as points or badges?
  • ​​Socialization: Does the product enable users to connect with other people?

Designers need to keep ethical considerations in mind when coaxing more engagement out of users. Misleading or manipulative copy, unclear consent requests, and nonstop notifications are examples of engagement prompts that can be harmful. Similarly problematic is the slot-machine effect, a dark pattern that serves up rewards at unpredictable intervals and keeps users coming back for more—perhaps more than they want.

An alternative is to build in an off-ramp that helps users disengage, such as the “You’re All Caught Up” message Instagram displays once users have reached the end of new content. This is a beautiful way to prevent endless scrolling through the user’s feed. It provides users with a sense of accomplishment so they can feel comfortable closing the app and moving on to other things.

But some designers want to give users even more control.

Start With a Calmer UI

An easy way to promote more intentional engagement between user and smartphone is to create a less demanding interface with a third-party solution, like the monochrome icon packs you can purchase for iPhones or the minimalist launchers available for Android.

One such launcher, Minimalist Phone, goes beyond cosmetic minimalism. It’s built to encourage more intentional engagement with your phone. “The design decision here was to break these old patterns that caused smartphone overuse and instead to try to teach people more healthy behavior or more healthy usage patterns,” says Minimalist Phone’s designer and solutions architect Martin Moravek of Munich, Germany.

The launcher is monochrome black and white. An all-text interface slows users, making it harder to reflexively tap on a distracting app. The only icon is the battery-level indicator.

Minimalist Phone features a monochrome all-text interface with a simple circular battery-life indicator surrounding the time and date.

During onboarding, the launcher encourages users to refrain from putting any distracting apps in the favorites list (pictured) on the top screen. Users can also hide their most tempting apps deep in a submenu. Moravek says the extra friction gives users time to change their minds about opening the app in the first place.

There’s also an optional in-app usage timer. When it’s enabled, users must keep extending the timer to continue using the app. In addition, notification bundling enables users to mute notifications from distracting apps. Finally, users have the option to display certain apps in grayscale to make them less appealing.

In a survey of Minimalist Phone users, 93% reported that the launcher helped them cut down on unwanted distractions.

Ditch Your Smartphone Entirely

The nuclear option, of course, is to get rid of your smartphone altogether. Enter the world of minimalist phones: Dumber than even an old-school flip phone, these uber-simple devices enable only calls and a handful of other functions, like texting or GPS navigation. Some recent entries into the market include Mudita, Wisephone, and Light.

Light’s latest Light Phone II is a slim, credit card-sized phone with only a few of features and a black-and-white e-ink screen commonly found in e-readers. It features texting, an alarm, a calculator, turn-by-turn directions, and the ability to manually upload a playlist. Crucially, there is no internet browser, and no way to add third-party apps.

The Light Phone II is tiny by design, so it can “disappear” when not in use.

The idea, says Kaiwei Tang, co-founder and CEO of Light, is that you don’t always need to carry a miniature computer with you everywhere you go, even if you do strip your iPhone or Galaxy down to just the essentials. “Right now, we use one tool to do everything,” he says. “That’s like the worst design ever, right? If you’re a designer, you know that if you create one product for everyone, it’s just not going to do anything good.” And if your goal is to take a mindful break from all your apps, he argues, what you actually need is another tool altogether.

For that reason, the Light Phone II is designed to look and feel completely unlike a smartphone. It’s tiny and has a matte finish. The e-ink screen doesn’t just look different from a smartphone screen, Tang says; it also creates a useful constraint because it can’t produce images with the same fidelity. That means the icons and typeface must be extremely simple.

The Light Phone II’s feature set is not only constrained by the hardware but by Light’s core philosophy. Every feature, or tool, has to adhere to three design principles in order to merit inclusion, Tang says: There can be no ads, the action of every tool has to have a clear endpoint, and there can be no endless scrolling or discoverability.

Tang says about 40% of Light Phone II users report using it as their only phone, while the rest use it part time or in conjunction with their smartphones.

Design Respectfully

How did we get to the point where some smartphone users are seeking ways to escape all the things that make smartphones so great? It’s partly because, well, everyone is unique.

Not everyone finds the same things important or wants to maintain the same degree of engagement at all times, says Microsoft’s Kim. In addition to working on Azure, he’s the co-author, along with Margaret Price, of a handbook called Respecting Focus, which is part of Microsoft’s inclusive design framework. One of the goals of Respecting Focus is to guide designers to make sure their products are inclusive of users who struggle with interruptions.

Unless you have toddlers at home, one of your top interruption culprits is likely to be the push notification. The average US smartphone user receives 46 push notifications a day, and a recent YouGov survey shows that 47% of US smartphone users say they get too many.

“I would say most notifications have some inherent value to the customer,” Kim says. “It’s just a lot of times they’re delivered in a way that makes that value either obscured or completely irrelevant to the customer at that time.”

But that doesn’t mean you need your product’s notifications to be even louder and more intrusive to be heard. According to the YouGov survey, 39% of annoyed users will shut off all notifications from an app rather than fine-tune its settings, and another 8% will delete the app entirely. That can be a costly loss for a business.

Instead, designers should build products that both empower users and respect their preferences. Respecting Focus offers the following design considerations:

  • Understand urgency and medium. Be mindful of what the user needs to know and how to alert them appropriately. Do they really need to be interrupted for this?
  • Adapt to user behavior. Learn the users’ preferences so users don’t have to change settings more than necessary.
  • Adapt to context. Consider how your product may be used by a wide variety of users who may engage in different ways in a variety of environments.
  • Enable the user to adapt. Let your user customize their experience and the communications they receive.
  • Reduce mental cost. Create an experience that reduces stress in overwhelmed, multitasking users.

According to Kim, we’re at the beginning of a paradigm shift in which businesses are starting to see users demanding more control over the way they interact with digital products. “All of us are becoming more aware of what it is that we need to be able to thrive,” he says, “and companies that don’t understand that will not be able to survive.”

As users crave more control, designers can accommodate them through minimalist UX design and other strategies that make their products more respectful of users’ preferences and needs.

Understanding the basics

Experts have found that frequent alerts and prolonged exposure to distressing content can raise our stress levels. A healthy product design approach empowers users to take control by making it easier to adjust notification settings and disengage when they need to.

UX design and psychology go hand in hand. Designers need to understand human behavior and its underpinnings, including neuroscience, common biases and logical fallacies, social psychology, human-computer interaction, and more. They should also be familiar with best practices for conducting research.

Mobile UX differs in many ways. Screen size, orientation, navigation and input methods, and the context in which a mobile device is used all matter. Minimalist UX design is one way to help reduce friction for mobile users and promote more engagement.