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Screen Time

Screen Time: An Exercise in Behavioral Research Design

The brief

With increasing technology access, and more ubiquitous internet-connected devices than ever, people are spending more time staring at screens. A 2018 Nielsen report found that US adults log close to 11 hours of screen time a day. There are several ways prolonged time in front of a screen affects our vision, mental health, sleep and physical health such as increase in obesity and issues with addiction. 
How might we reduce screen time and foster digital well-being among adults?

The Problem

For this project I employed behavioral research design as the backbone methodology.
What’s behavioral research? Great question!
 A big part of behavioral research design is the process of deciding what to design for specific outcomes. It begins with a deep understanding of how the environment and context influence people’s decisions and actions.

“I made up my mind at this point that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult. What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.”
— Buckminster Fuller

(Who’s Buckminster Fuller? He’s a wonderful innovator, designer, and visionary.  Listen to the Studs Terkel interview with Bucky here.)

Research Methods


My team and I took this broad how might we statement and narrowed it to a more specific problem statement: Interaction with social media while in bed prevents adults from getting a full night’s sleep.


After conducting several one on one interviews with smartphone using adults including those who identified as having issues with sleep and those who do not we were able to produce a journey map.  When using a behavioral design strategy it’s important to define the problem only in terms of what behaviors we are trying to encourage (or discourage). It’s also helpful to acknowledge different behavioral biases as ways to help solve some of these issues or at the very least give us a new way to think about them. 

COP user journey.jpg

This journey map identified several points of a possible interventions. We heard over and over in our interviews that people brought their phones to bed with them mostly because they used it as an alarm clock.

Additionally, it was very common for users to scroll through their social media before going to bed and if they did wake during the night it was also common for them to look at their phone and even engage with it especially if they saw a notification. One hypothesis we settled on is that the colors and brightness of our phones is really attractive and continues engages our mind. What if these colors were muted? Today it is entirely possible to put your iPhone into grayscale. We suggest an additional tweak that function. A function in which a user can turn on when their phone automatically goes grayscale at a certain time in the evening. 

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To help prove this theory we experimented. Sending home a group of volunteers they were told to put their phone to grayscale and report back how they engaged with the device at bedtime. We compared this with what they self reported of how much phone time they occupied at bed time. 

Some initial findings

  • Test subjects used social media nearly 60% less when using Greyscale (44 seconds vs 104 seconds) in the simulation.

  • Users were generally open to the idea of Greyscale and it being automatic.

List of the Behavioral Strategies we employed

Hassle Factor: Make it easy by removing frictions and promoting substitutes
The change from color to grayscale is a small contextual o factors that constrains individuals from really enjoying their phone. This acts as a catalyst in one way or another.

Provide support with planning and implementation of intentions
Enabling the feature is a commitment to yourself. The messaging around it motivates you to make the change.

Use timely moment prompts and reminders
It’s just one tap to enable upon a suggestion from the OS. Once it is enabled it happens automatically at a set time.

Take Aways

Humans are complex and sometimes we don’t know what we want or why we do the things we do. As awareness of behavioral economics has grown, so has the ability to design for these behaviors in mind.