I chatted with my 14 year old cousin about how he uses technology (he lives in a major US city). He was kind enough to share his phone’s ScreenTime for that week:
Attention distribution across devices
This was a low-usage week for him. Apparently he averages 40–60 hrs of smartphone use per week, with YouTube and Instagram taking the lion’s share of his attention.
He’s never used Facebook and his entire social graph exists on Instagram. He’s drastically reduced his time on Snapchat and only uses it to text, which apparently feels better on Snapchat than on Instagram.
My cousin has access to laptops, iPads and his phone, and chooses his phone for the majority of the time he spends on devices. He barely touches the iPad lying around at home and uses a laptop only when he has a lot of typing to do for an assignment.
I wasn’t surprised that he spent most of his device time on his phone, but I was surprised by the number: 40–60 hours. I hit 15 hours on my phone, on a busy week. Most of my work happens on my laptop, and I don’t have much patience for many mobile experiences that I consider inferior to desktop-web counterparts (Why would I watch a movie on my phone when I have a high resolution, larger screened laptop sitting right next to me?)
My cousin lives in a mobile-first ecosystem, while I live in laptop-first one.
He’s far more comfortable doing things on his phone that I have the urge to pull my laptop out for. He can write long messages, watch many hours of video and even edit his assignments as he cranks out finishing touches close to the deadline. It’s common for students to pull out their phones in between each class, and it’s also becoming common for students to use their phones to participate in classroom activities through apps like: Kahoot! and Quizziz. (I was surprised that personal devices were enabled in the classroom as opposed to school administered devices, but this makes since given the budget cuts schools are facing now).
East and West
My cousin’s mobile usage in the US reminds me of how many of my friends in India and Vietnam use their phones. The majority in South East Asia, India, China will have leapfrogged desktop computing and use their smartphones are their primary internet access points.
Studying the mobile app ecosystem in China could be a good place to learn about how the next generation in the west will use technology (I highly recommend Dan Grover’s analysis of Chinese mobile app UI trends).
Future of Mobile
I think there are 2 interesting directions to explore the future of how we use our smartphones:
What high value functions do we need laptops for today? Which of those, if made much simpler to do on your phone, would enable a new audience to participate in the internet economy?
What experiences are only possible on your smartphone? (I won’t cover this in this post).
For example, if we just look at the process of starting and running a business, it’s painful to do the following on just your phone:
Design, build and launch your own website.
Build an online store for your offline business.
Handle orders, shipping & logistics.
Handle employee payroll.
Painful, yet not impossible. Yes, you could use the Shopify app to eventually launch a half-decent site, but the website building experience feels like an afterthought to the desktop-web experience.
Here I’m asked to choose the visual alignment of an image on my site by picking a text option from a dropdown. Clearly a non mobile-first design.
And oftentimes you need to use the desktop-web site in order to access critical functionality: for Shopify there’s no way to integrate marketplace apps from your phone — an essential part of setting up your business.
These constraints make sense. Shopify’s main customer base is in countries where laptop penetration is high, so there isn’t demand for a mobile first solution. But there’s likely a growing audience that’s left out of participating in the internet economy due to this user experience friction.
Perhaps Universe’s user experience is pointing in the right direction:
This platform feels like a toy aimed at teens, but the experience of dragging and dropping parts of your website on your screen is a much better mobile experience for building a website than what Shopify provides.
This mobile-only experience hints at the platform unbundling we might see in this next generation of mobile apps. I feel most mobile content creation is silo-ed in apps because of how difficult it is to publish to your own site. Once that barrier is broken, the incentives are in place for individual creators to differentiate by having their independent, customized online presence (in addition to participating on existing social platforms for distribution).
What about laptops?
I used to believe that if laptops were super affordable, then many that currently can’t afford one would get one so that they can be more productive. I now believe that as the app ecosystem enables higher value actions (building an online brand, selling things, etc.), in an true mobile first way, many wouldn’t want a laptop-like interface.
As this mobile first behavior shift continues, some incumbents will make the transition. Some won’t. I’m going to bet on new mobile first companies enabling functions we previously thought only made sense on your laptop to shake things up in the next 5 years.
I attempted to write and publish this post entirely on my phone. Initially I had only wanted to publish on my blog (via Squarespace), but I ended up typing it out on the Medium iOS app because of how difficult the Squarespace Blog app was to use (I guess I should have actually read the reviews first).
Medium has a good mobile editor (iOS), but doesn’t allow me to publish elsewhere.
#opportunity: I’d be willing to pay $3 / mo for a well designed mobile text editor that would let me publish my article to Medium and my own site, which handles images and GIFs well.