Rethinking airplane mode: changing an icon to change your mind.

20 August 2019
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If you’re scrolling through this on your phone right now, check in with yourself. Feel like you’re always spending too long on it?

Our screen time is on the rise and so are the problems that come with it. Screen addiction is now discussed as a global health issue, and there’s no clear answer on what it all means for our mental health, young people, social relationships or even democracy.

We’re in the era of the attention economy. Our interactions with personal technology are increasingly dependent on “dopamine-driven feedback loops”, where our attention is commoditised for the commercial gain of our data.

There are a lot of angles on hot takes on what it all means. Personally, you might not consider yourself addicted — or maybe you’re unfazed by data privacy. If you’re someone who works in UX, some critical awareness can go a long way in keeping you from falling victim to the endless scroll. But either way you look at it, the problems attributed to the amount of time we spend on our devices are growing, and we’re only just realising the impact and influence that they have.

But things are starting to change. Amid tech scandals and high-profile data privacy debates, “digital detox” feels like a less loaded term as more people are questioning their relationships with their devices. As this trend towards unplugging emerges, it’s apparent there’s a need for human-computer interfaces and experiences with technology that foster healthier and more meaningful relationships with it. But the changes we make to get there don’t necessarily need to be so major.

Simple UI changes can make a big UX difference

Airplane mode has been around for decades. It’s usually the first icon on your phone’s control panel, and it’s a feature that’s carried over to tablets, laptops and smartwatches. It’s a mandatory function regulated on consumer devices that — in most cases — suspends all radio-frequency transmissions across cellular, Bluetooth and wifi.

But connectivity has come a long way since airplane mode was patented back in the early 2000s. In fact, the entire context of using our devices in the skies has changed. Updated aviation regulations and the proliferation of commercial in-flight wifi service mean we can now stay connected in the skies, from taxi to landing.

Put simply: airplane mode isn’t about airplanes anymore.

Here’s the opportunity. A small change to the visual interface could help change the user experience in a significant way.

Rethinking airplane mode Somo global

Disconnect Mode: tweaking interface to transform interaction. Icon by Fengquan Li from the Noun Project.

We’ve all hit airplane mode before and not just when boarding a flight. Maybe it’s to save some battery, speed up charging or to go a little off-grid. But across all of these, it’s with the intention to disconnect.

So let’s call it: Disconnect Mode.

It’s the right moment for it. As all these concerns grow, more people are questioning their relationships with their personal devices — and big tech is already starting to notice.

In the last year, we’ve seen the likes of Apple and Google release ‘screen time’ features to help monitor and curb smartphone usage. The introduction of these new digital wellness features on the most widely-used operating systems isn’t just a minor bump, it says a lot about our collective relationships with technology. It’s the cigarette packet warning for the internet generation.

It’s a start, but we’re not there yet. So far these features do little more than measure and screen-shame. They don’t provide convenient functions to take action and encourage self-moderated behaviours when it comes to our devices.

Airplane mode is universal, but the term doesn’t fit anymore. Relabelling the feature marks a subtle adjustment to recognise the times we live in and provide a little visual nudge to help make those behaviour changes.

In a way, it’s re-appropriating airplane mode for modern digital culture. It’s a visual change with no impact on its mandated function, but reduces uncertainty and provides relevance to choosing to disconnect in more places beyond the aircraft cabin.

UX goes beyond interaction

It’s not just usage habits. Post-GDPR and Cambridge Analytica, people are more privacy-conscious and hesitant about the data they share. The internet giants are slowly putting out tools to help users manage the terms of their personal data and privacy, but there’s no reason why this type of control can’t be a core device function.

Just last week, Tim Cook called out four principles of privacy regulation echoing his comments to EU policymakers back in October. The first: the right to minimise the collection of personal data.

This isn’t just applicable to software and apps, but something to consider at a hardware level. Even when we’re not doing anything, our smartphones can generate a whole lot of contextual and background data and send it back to the cloud for someone’s commercial gain. A ‘disconnect mode’ not only allows users to choose what they do with their technology, but also set boundaries on what that technology can do with us.

Of course, Do Not Disturb features and more granular notification controls can help in changing smartphone habits, but disconnecting addresses the perception that we need to be always online. Most mobile devices still serve as capable personal computers without being connected to the internet, and it’s important for users to understand the distinction between what their modern-day pocket PC can do, and what is dependent on the web.

With the prevalence of public wifi, the advent of 5G networking and rise of IoT-connected devices, we’re about to be connected in a lot more ways — and it’s only right that we get to select the terms of how.

Above all else, UX design is thinking about interactions with technology and looking for ways to improve them. Changing a control panel button might not be a complete fix for all of our screen-based problems, but it’s an aesthetic tweak that could make a real difference to a lot of people. Meaningful user experiences can depend on a lot of factors, but the impact of simplicity should always come first.


First published by UX Collective in January 2019.