The smartphones in our pockets are taking over our lives. Even though we might try or claim to achieve a healthy balance, we find it all too easy to get sucked into our devices: Notifications and alerts nag at us, conditioning compels us, and curiosity teases us into checking our phones. Americans spend 4.7 hours a day (or about a third of their waking hours) on their phones, and some part of our brain is always plugged in to the constant stream of information. Vigilantly, we watch, listen, wait.

Deeper investigations have suggested grave consequences. 341,000 car crashes in 2013 involved a driver who was texting. Cognitive function worsens for someone who uses devices frequently, making it more difficult to achieve deep focus. In her latest book, Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle describes teenagers who have grown up texting and dream of one day having a real face-to-face conversation. It’s something they’ve hardly ever done. She describes parents who lament lost family time: a dad more engaged with his phone than with his child’s bath time, teens frustrated by parents who stay on their smartphones through dinner.

We are distracted. It’s hard to focus. It’s harder to communicate face-to-face. We’re becoming desocialized. We flee from boredom. We check by reflex. Our lives are falling out of balance. How did we end up this way? And why so quickly?

The operating system of your smartphone is the culprit: It is a vending machine. It was designed to capture and consume your attention, to pull you out of your physical reality into its pristine virtuality. It probably wasn’t intentionally shaped this way, but similar economic incentives drove its design.

It began with iOS. Back when they were putting the first iPhone together, Apple was also building their App Store as a distribution system to deliver apps to consumers. Like a vending machine, the iPhone device would serve as a consumer distribution endpoint, but for apps instead of junk food. To bootstrap their new marketplace, Apple needed brands and developers to build up, sustain and evolve a massive collection of Apps that consumers could put on their phones. Apple defined vending machine-like packaging requirements: size limits, interface guidelines and an attractive wrapper.

The app grid has been the one constant of the iOS experience.

Apps were small, lightweight, disposable, cheap and from the beginning they were the basis for everything. In order for the App Store ecosystem to work, Apple needed a way to present all of the installed apps as equals–the way a vending machine does with junk food. The iPhone’s “Springboard” app grid is the display rack. Together the name and icon, colorful and branded, serve as the wrapper for the app. Each wrapper is put on display, where it competes with the others to capture your attention. Initially, users couldn’t even rearrange their apps–just like you can’t reach through the glass. From conception to today, the app grid, within which all apps are equal, has been the one constant of the iOS experience.

Like vending machine operators, Apple would take a cut of all monetary profits apps make–but another more valuable form of currency would also be spent every time an app was used: the consumer’s focused attention. Apple would get that, too.

The rest was history. When the iPhone was released, it blew up; people had to have it. It was so disruptive that the Google Android project, which had been earnestly copying the older Blackberry devices, immediately started over and copied the iPhone & App Store instead. This left Google playing catch up, because they realized that they needed a vending machine of their own.

Did these companies set out to recreate the vending machine, intentionally? Probably not. Yet they did. Apple clearly recognized the design’s importance, going so far as to patent their new app grid (among other features) and spending millions to bring litigation before the US Supreme Court in an effort to prevent Samsung from profiting by similar designs.

An iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy phone, side by side, in 2012 (Bloomberg photo)
An iPhone and a Samsung Galaxy phone, side by side, in 2012 (Bloomberg photo)

So why is this bad?

The vending machine was never intended to be your life companion, nestled in your pocket. It’s a retailer’s contraption designed to sell things to you automatically. A vending machine accomplishes the sale by being situated in the right place: it grabs your attention by providing a salient visual display of the brands/products that are available, collects your money, and serves up an item of your choice for you to grab and consume. It compels and rewards an impulse decision. You move on and it stays put, ready to exploit you the next time.

On the other hand, our smartphones are always with us–we don’t leave home without them. They are useful in myriad ways. In spite of their obvious utility, our phones’ copycat design compels sustained distraction, unproductive time, and impulsive usage. Apps and features are given an opportunity to capture our attention, regardless of what we’re trying to do. We find it very difficult to both moderate and focus our usage of smartphones.

For one, the app grid is not humanistic. It copies the one part of the vending machine that the consumer could never touch. It seeks to carve out a place in your visual field for every app you’ve ever installed, every time you use the device. This creates clutter. As a result, even when we open our phones to accomplish a specific task, our devices are selling other apps–functional ones, informational ones, entertaining ones–along the way. Our phones were designed to help Apps be used, not to help us better seize our day. They’re app first when they should be user first.

Apps are the junk food: They’re in endless supply, leaving a greater number of us distracted, unable to focus, and struggling to converse in person.

What’s more, our phones cultivate the compulsion to open apps. Like their metaphoric precedent, smartphones are attention-grabbing devices designed to reward you for impulse decisions. Their design conditions us to open our app wrappers and check for an update inside. Every engagement we have with the device offers positive reinforcement for this user behavior: the simple experience of tapping to open an app is an opportunity for another reward. Apps don’t always have a meaningful update. It’s a small prize when they do. The inconsistent and unpredictable nature of updates actually deepens our compulsion to tap on Apps.

Vending machines were designed to sell. Imagine you had one in your pocket. It could gobble up your pocket change, maybe filter out the lint, and spit out a bag of chips, whenever you wanted it. We’d all have an endless supply of chips in our pockets, and a greater number of us would likely be less healthy, more overweight.

Our phones are doing this very thing. The difference is that the currency is our attention, rather than pocket change. Apps are the junk food: They’re in endless supply, leaving a greater number of us distracted, unable to focus, and struggling to converse in person. We are less healthy because of our compulsion to interact with our phones.

What do we do about it?

A device that lives in your pocket shouldn’t be built to compel impulsive decisions and it shouldn’t constantly seek attention. Our phones need to sell less. They should help us achieve the things we set out to do, not distract us with new things while we’re going about our day. This will require balance to integrate into our lives, subtlety to limit disruption and disengagement to compel quiet reflection.

Individual heroics can help each of us achieve some device/life balance, but in the long term we need to evolve our smartphones away from vending machines. The app-first nature of your phone means you are more likely to do things that your apps want you to do, and less likely to accomplish your own immediate goals and tasks.

We need to reframe via a new metaphor. As the philosopher and educator Donald Schön observed, this can be incredibly hard to do. Most people take the app grid on their phone for granted; they assume it simply has to be. It doesn’t. Our devices must become user-first, not app-first. They must augment and serve the real life experiences of the user, not replace them. They must resist the temptation to exploit the user for economic gain, recognizing that over the long term, health and vitality are more important than a quick buck. And perhaps most fundamentally, our smartphones must actively disengage us, rather than constantly try to engage us.

Those of us who design and build products have a responsibility to do better. At Subforum, we’re excited to be a part of the conversation, and to help lead the evolution of smartphone design.

Giles Phillips is the founder of Subforum, a Boston-based product design group focused on the design of sustainable mobile products & systems. Bryant Wolf is a software engineer and a product designer researching at Subforum with a focus on the implications of technology on our shared humanity.