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.
Given that we were in the target audience we decided to run a series of experiments on both ourselves and fellow classmates.
Experiment 1: Map daily phone usage
To understand individual’s behaviour patterns with digital devices use and potential moment for harmful uses.
We got 6 participants to track 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 got them to tell us what they found interesting or shocking.
People have different digital rhythms
Participants were generally shocked at the amount of digital media they consume
Participants were quick to identify moments of overuse that they would like to address
Experiment 2: A day without a phone
To understand where our dependencies on these devices lied and uncover those hidden behaviours that we didn't know we do.
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.
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
Key finding: Relationships with media
“ 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
Summary of findings
From our research we identified 5 consumption patterns among all our participants.
Looping - going through a sequence of media and starting from the beginning in hope for new content.
Breaks in concentration - often caused by notifications.
Compulsive checking - high number of unprompted or unconscious screen unlocks throughout the day.
Lack of presence - using several screens simultaneously not paying much attention to either, usually a laptop and phone.
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.
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.
Based on our findings so far we defined the following service requirements to balance the effects of attention economy.
Donate your phone to concentrate
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.
Findings from testing:
A few participations didn't open the booklet, the cover was enough to divert phone usage
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.
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.
Findings from testing:
Time spent on phones was reduced when others did so too.
Not all breaks were used for phone use.
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.
- allow users to control their usage connecting it to time, activity and location.
Tackles: bedtime scrolling and breaks in concentration
- prompt to remind users of their goal to reduce their consumption patterns
- turn the unconscious to conscious
Tackles: looping, compulsive checking and lack of presence
how it works
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.
Machine learning loop
Value for bbc & the public
Coming up with research probes such as tracking peoples' phone use and locking phones away in lockers. I conducted some of the user interviews and research into the social determinants of health which was used to analyse our target market. I also created one of the service structures for how our service might work.
Lessons learnt and reflections
Experimenting from early on the project was not only fun, but allowed us to learn through making. Map out your understanding of the service structure when you begin discussing it to avoid differing comprehensions of how it functions.
With special thanks to
Our tutor Nicolas Rebolledo-Bustamante, Royal College of Art
David Ulman & Bill Thompson, BBC
This project was created in collaboration with Irene Liao, Pinja Piipponen and Sujeban Susilkanthan.
Date: May 2019 - June 2019
Additional service structure
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
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
As well as backing up desk research that we had conducted, running experiments forced us to validate any assumptions we came to the challenge with...plus they were fun to do!
All of us felt initially ashamed of how much we consumed and wanted to downplay it or justify it.
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.
People were very creative in the workarounds they created. Some included creating folders on their phone to hide certain apps.
The BBC had yet to define the role they play when it comes to the attention economy.
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.
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.
We ended up creating two different ways that this could work. This method was the chosen one.
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.
We didn't realise initially that we had imagined it functioning in two different ways. It was only during a discussion when we were practicing how to talk about the concept that we realised we had different understandings. Once we compared the mapped out service structures we realised how they differed. It was cool to know that we had options should we want to develop this further.