The BBC came to the Royal College of Art to explore possible new public services that are based on data, rather than manual content crafting that fulfil the BBC’s public service mission. They
challenged us to address their issue of remaining relevant for 16 – 34 year olds given the BBC's noticeable drop-off in the size of this audience over the last few years.
We quickly became interested in the BBC's role in digital media consumption, especially given that the average person in UK spends more than 6 hours a day online. A study from 2016 estimates that we tap, swipe and click on our devices 2,617 times each day. While there are positive aspects to digital media such as new opportunities for support, education, entertainment and inspiration, it can often cause people to spiral into mindless over-consumption and discomfort when detached from devices.
The attention economy
Business models of media companies, such as Instagram and Netflix, rely on gaining more attention from their users. The more attention they get, the more revenue they generate. To address issues of overconsumption policies need to be put in place, but data and research for evidence based policies is needed first.
Given that we were in the target audience we decided to run two experiments using research probes on both ourselves, fellow classmates, friends and family.
Experiment one: map daily phone usage
Aim: To understand individual’s behaviour patterns with digital devices use and potential moment for harmful uses.
Method: We had 6 participants tracking their use of multiple digital devices over 3 days using existing tools such as Apple Screen Time and Quality Time. We then displayed the usage back to them and asked them to talk us through their reaction and understanding of the results, in particular what they found interesting or shocking.
(1) People have different digital rhythms.
(2) Participants were generally shocked at the amount of digital media they consume.
(3) Participants were quick to identify moments of overuse that they would like to address.
The BBC had yet to define the role they play when it comes to the attention economy.
As well as backing up our desk research, running experiments forced us to question any assumptions we came to the challenge with...plus they were fun to do!
A common response was feeling initially ashamed of how much we consumed and wanting to downplay or justify it.
Results of one person's daily phone, laptop and tv usage.
A participant's feelings without a phone.
Experiment two: a day without a phone
Aim: To understand where our dependencies on these devices lied and uncover those hidden behaviours that we didn't know we do.
Method: We locked away 7 participants phones in my locker from anywhere from 1 hour to 3 days depending on how long they were willing to go without their phones.
- Worried people might need me.
- Thinking I have missed something.
- Not knowing what to do in empty moments.
- Fear of being forgotten.
- Reaching to phone with no need.
All participants described joy when reunited with their phones.
We were surprised how many people agreed to do this. One person appreciated being uncontactable so much that she asked us to keep her phone for the whole weekend.
In addition to quickly gather information we conducted 3 rounds of interviews. The first focussed on interviewee’s values and goals, the second narrowed down to relationships with media and the final took an expert view.
Analysis of interviews.
Key findings: values and goals
- Have more online than offline friendships.
- Like to be part of a group and not be forgotten.
- Looking for something to do outside of the digital world.
- Self discipline is really hard, even if the reward is clear.
Key findings: relationships with media
- Media is essential but can get lost in it.
- Most used when bored.
- Attempts to reduce media consumption often didn’t work in the long-term.
- Dislike for superficial internet identities.
- Time spent online was affecting offline relationships.
“From what I’ve experienced, there is a big lack of understanding how people function, everybody is looking for data to identify behaviours.” - Media Strategist at MediaCom
Synthesis of findings
From our research we identified 5 consumption patterns among all our participants.
(1) Looping: going through a sequence of media and starting from the beginning in hope for new content.
(2) Breaks in concentration: often caused by notifications.
(3) Compulsive checking: high number of unprompted or unconscious screen unlocks throughout the day.
(4) Lack of presence: using several screens simultaneously not paying much attention to either, usually a laptop and phone.
(5) Bedtime scrolling: the blue light on screens affects our sleep when consuming digital media in bed, increasing the time taken to fall asleep or getting out of bed.
Many participants had attempted workarounds such as hiding their phone, giving it to a friend while watching a movie or stacking phones when meeting friends.
There was a nice mix in the types of workaround that people had created, from creating folders on their phone to move certain apps out of sight to giving their phone to a family member.
Based on our findings so far we defined the following service requirements to balance the effects of attention economy.
We ideated around the idea of donating your phone to concentrate and picked two ideas to prototype and test. The aim was to understand whether the simple act of consciously setting your phone to the side in a controlled way would allow you to concentrate on your work without the anxiety of separation.
We created booklets to place your phone into containing a stack of post-it notes to place on the screen of your phone, mimicking a notification with messages and actions (such as solve this puzzle). Each time a participant opened the booklet to check their phone, they had to complete the action outlined on the post-it. We left it open to the participants as to what to do after completing the action.
While this worked for some participants the novelty of it wore off after a while and people either forgot to use it or ignored the extra step of opening it.
Findings from testing:
(1) A few participations didn't open the booklet, the cover was enough to divert phone usage.
(2) Most participants found that the act of completing an action made them consider whether they really wanted to use their phone. They completed the action before proceeding to use their phone. This wore off after a period of time though.
(3) One participant completed all actions in a row as he mainly wanted to use his phone as a source of distraction and the post-it notes provided that.
As a way of reducing phone use while working on the project, we designed a group phone detox as a way of us all placing our phones away and only going to check when all agreed we could or in a planned break.
Having to complete an activity to unlock your phone proved to be fun, however none of our participations faced an emergency scenario where they would need to unlock their phone immediately.
We ended up doing this as a team for the duration of the project. We found it forced us to consider when we needed breaks and use them in more purposeful ways.
Findings from testing:
(1) Time spent on phones was reduced when others did so too.
(2) Not all breaks were used for phone use.
(3 Whatsapp messages etc were sometimes checked on a laptop instead.
BBC brb - be right back - is a data enabled service that helps people to reduce their unbalanced use of digital media with:
- personalised information of consumption patterns
- adaptable tools: nudges and modes
- support and goals for development
With a multi device plugin linked to your BBC ID, the system tracks your individual behaviour patterns and highlights ones that might be excessive. Brb is not a new system but it’s a plug in across multiple screens which can attach on BBC current system. This allows existing user to login brb service and don’t need to spend time to create a new account.
We decided not to create a new system but to integrate brb into existing platforms to reach a wider audience and build on what the BBC have already successfully made.
Tool suggestions to tackle the identified patterns:
(1) Modes: allow users to control their usage connecting it to time, activity and location.
Tackles: bedtime scrolling and breaks in concentration.
(2) Nudges: prompt to remind users of their goal to reduce their consumption patterns and turn the unconscious into the conscious.
Tackles: looping, compulsive checking and lack of presence.
How it works
The user journey:
We ended up creating two different ways that this could work. This method was the chosen one.
The service structure:
Data and algorithms:
Informing users of their patterns is possible with a set of algorithms that have been programmed to detect the 5 patterns based on the data collected and ‘If this then that’ algorithms. For example in one use case the worst pattern could be breaks in concentration during work hours, which is identified by layering data of work hours timeframes with location data and detecting that the user frequently uses her devices. The system doesn't show the user everything to avoid overwhelming them with too much information. It prioritises the data by showing only to most excessive pattern first and the most active time and day within the one week tracking period.
This is an example of a user who has set up a mode to address their first identified pattern, breaks in concentration. When they next address their lack of presence when using more than one device they are suggested with a preset nudge. Depending on whether the user decides to ignore or address an issue, and how they setup a mode or nudge, the system adapts to learn their digital rhythm and makes smarter suggestions based what the user considers to be harmful.
The BBC wanted as much information as to how this would be set up and run. We decided to map this in the common 'if this then that' format with the example of data that we had collected.
Machine learning loop:
Value for the BBC and the public
For the BBC:
- A database of media usage and activities people consider as unwanted or harmful
- Data for strategic content creation. Time and location of media usage to assist with new forms of media for micro-moments and content placement.
- New users. Group mode inviting others to join the BBC service.
For the public:
- Improved digital wellness. Healthier balance with media and digital devices, and more opportunities for life offline.
- Fewer expectations. New normal that people aren’t available 24/7.
- Data for research and policies. The database would serve as a rich resource to enable data informed policies on digital media consumption.
Lessons learnt and reflections
Experimenting from early on the project was not only fun, but allowed us to learn through making. Shortly after discussing how we imagined the service functioning and be structured I worked remotely and had a few days on leave. However, without realising myself and another colleague had interpreted this conversation differently and we ended up with two ways of the service working. We found this to be an interesting discovery. Going forward, if we were after group consensus, I'd collectively map out our understanding when we begin discussing it together. However, if we wanted more options I'd allow different team members to individually map to compare and discuss.
With special thanks to
Our tutor Nicolas Rebolledo-Bustamante, Royal College of Art
David Ulman & Bill Thompson, BBC
This project was done in collaboration with Irene Liao, Pinja Piipponen and Sujeban Susilkanthan.
Additional service structure
It was cool to know that we had an additional way of the service working - should we take the idea further, we'd have options!