When you buy food from the supermarket, you expect to be able to see what is in it. You don’t necessarily want to to check every item you buy for its percentage of sugar or unsaturated fat (or whatever), but you want to have the option. What if you are allergic to something? What if you are watching your weight? You might want to know what you are putting into your body before you eat it.
We don’t have the same expectation when we are choosing digital products. Sure, there are terms and conditions and privacy policies, but nobody reads them, and in any case do they even contain the salient information? We don’t know if we are exposing ourselves to ad-based monetization, or an infinite scroll attention-vortex, or addictive gamification. We don’t know if our activity is being mined for future recommendations, or how our data is being stored or shared, actually. But we wilfully let these applications into our minds and our lives, even though we don’t know what’s in them.
I’m not saying regulation is required. But I do think technologists should think carefully about what they are putting into their products, outside one-eyed KPIs. And I think as users we should be thoughtful about what we eat. So to speak.
One of the few daily newsletters I almost always skim is Product Hunt‘s Daily email. Pretty short, digestible and themed (hello Harry Potter), it generally fits quite nicely into a commute or equivalent. The other day the theme was “10 Apps for your mood“. As well as the usual heavyweights (Headspace, Calm), it featured a fewer up-and-comers that launched on Product Hunt in the last year.
The one which caught my eye was Siempo, which promises to “turn your phone into a healthier digital experience 📱” (emoji theirs). That sounded pretty good, so I downloaded it to give it a try.
Off the bat the user experience is quite intimidating, as it pretty immediately asks you for every phone permission under the sun, making me instantly suspicious. Perhaps it’s on me – I didn’t know initially that Siempo was a “Launcher” app, effectively replacing your phone’s Home screen and App catalogue. Now I do know that, it makes sense that it would need pretty invasive permissions, but it still feels weird. Whatever the weather I think Siempo could do a better job explaining what is going on before you give it permission to view your blood type, and could also maybe reassure you of the robust privacy of that information. Rant over.
Once you have done all that, you are presented with a basic black and white UI instead of your normal home screen.
Siempo aims to “put you back in control of your apps and protect you from overuse”, and it is surprising how effective a nondescript home screen is. Colourful branded icons are gone, and most non-core apps require you to search for them, rather than your thumb’s muscle memory taking you there. Introducing this minor friction acts as a reminder, and more than once I find myself putting my phone down to focus on what I was doing as a result.
There is also the concept of “Flagged” apps, which you don’t want to spend time on. Siempo had a few pre-populated – Twitter (guilty), Snapchat (not guilty), YouTube (not guilty) and LinkedIn (on the odd weird occasion). I left them in as they were. These apps don’t show up in the main search results, requiring you to go to a separate taboo section, another simple segregation which is actually quite effective. You can also opt to be reminded when you have spent too much time on a “Flagged” app (if you hand over yet more permissions), some gentle prompts and a counting clock showing up at the top or bottom of your screen.
Siempo lets you batch up notifications, so they only arrive periodically or at a certain time. My phone (a OnePlus) treats the batches kind of strangely (they are all Siempo notifications when they come through), so I haven’t gone for this one yet, but I do see the utility during periods of focused time.
I could think of some additional potential features. Analytics is one, given all the data I know the app has – it would be interesting to know where I am spending all my time, and I have always thought that notification analytics would be cool to see. I would also be interested in Time of day controls or switches, so I can be “at work” or “at home” and have different experiences accordingly. I think there is a trick missed integrating something like Unsplash in the name of lovely photos for people to look at (value-add stuff I know). On a more serious note, the lack of a payment option for the service is a bit unnerving, particularly for a product that has quite so much of your personal information. Everyone’s got to eat, I am happy to pay for digital services I value, and I feel like lots of people are increasingly of that view. If anything, finding a Patreon page with only 5 backers made me all the more anxious, but maybe there is a business model underneath it all that I am unaware of (and happy to update this to reflect that if anyone is in the know).
Overall though I am pretty impressed with Siempo, and at the very least it made me think quite a bit about my phone usage. I have friends who have contemplated ditching their smartphone altogether in favour of a less distracting brick phone – I think this software-based approach is a less drastic middle ground.
It made me think about trust – in giving access to Siempo, I was reminded of how much my smartphone knows or could know about me. Having worked in a couple of tech companies, I actually think the extent to which that data is actively used right now is less than one might suspect (or fear), but things could certainly go in that direction. You are also trusting them to keep your information safe, which is probably actually the bigger concern.
It made me wonder why smartphone makers don’t give you more control over their inbuilt Launcher apps, instead letting addictive apps run amok across your home screen and attention span. Controlling that experience, or at least giving people tools to do so if they want, is something I hope phone companies are thinking about.
So quite a lot taken away from a random app downloaded on a whim, but that is probably because Siempo strikes a very current nerve. Phones at their best are magical devices that create wonderful experiences and foster global connection, phones at their worst are attention slot machines. Siempo is focused on (preventing) the latter, which is certainly a noble cause.
I have been using Notion recently, a note-taking and collaboration product that has enjoyed favourable buzz from some of the Silicon Valley people I follow on Twitter. I was surprised to learn more about Notion’s backstory, which includes a recovery from the brink of failure, and a relocation to Kyoto which I still don’t fully follow (unless it was for the ramen, in which case the strategic importance of the move is clear).
I’m enjoying it. The individual note-taking experience takes what is good about Google Docs and adds some nice widgets and Markdown shortcuts, which is cool. But it is the flexible data-structure with its easy connections between notes and data-points that I have found most transformative – letting you start from anywhere and build in an emergent way, unlike the fragile top-down architecture of a Google spreadsheet (for example).
There are lots of directions the product could go in – I think it is only at risk of death-by-a-thousand-features, so am interested in how they handle curation and creation as the product grows (the current mostly blank slate approach already has me feeling like I’m not making the most of what is there).
It has bugs, the occasional glitch duplicating an object for example, or logging me out, or crashing (gulp). I’d like to be able to select whole notes on the Android app. But nothing too jarring.
I guess my broader writing problem is that this isn’t my first note-taking relationship, and I am shame-faced to I admit that I have often had overlaps. At this point I have notes on the following: