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Maggie Stanphill is making more mindful tech

September 11th, 2020

If you’ve seen your weekly screen time go up over the past few months, you’re hardly alone. Maggie Stanphill, Google’s director of user experience (UX), has seen her stats go up, too. Maggie leads UX efforts for Google’s Digital Wellbeing initiative, and she’s noticed that the current state of the world requires an evolution in our understanding of how we can mindfully use tech.

“The emphasis on screen time feels really tone-deaf right now, right?” Maggie says. “Almost everyone who has access to tech is spending more and more time online. So many of us are getting those weekly screen time reports that say it’s gone up by some percent, and that might actually be aggravating.” But, she explains, there are ways digital tools can be more helpful. “We’re really trying to create a more nuanced approach. Look at sleep: We know queries for insomnia have gone way up, and we’re working on refining our tools to support that.”

I recently sat down with Maggie via Google Meet to talk more about her work in UX, and how Google’s Digital Wellbeing features are pivoting to meet people where they are.

How would you describe your job at a dinner party to someone who doesn’t work in tech?

I’d say we conduct research with people around the world to better understand their needs and bring that perspective into the product design process to make tech more helpful and less intrusive. I also like to say that you can think of a UXer as the voice of the user in the room where decisions are being made. That’s where we play a role to advocate for people’s needs.

What was your career path to UX like? 

I started as a journalist, actually; I got a degree in English. I loved storytelling, and I really found there was a natural transition when I moved into this field—storytelling was part of the design process. Narrative showed up in a variety of ways, like conducting ethnographic research and sharing people’s perspectives through tools like personas, which are character sketches that help UXers understand their core audience. Having that people-first lens is what’s really driven my career path. There was no “UX degree” when I was going through school, but I’ve found that focusing on understanding people’s needs and their goals translated really well in terms of what I needed to grow and be effective at this work.

Have you heard of the Strengths Finder quiz?

I’ve heard of it but I haven’t taken it!

One of my primary strengths is “input,” information gathering, and synthesizing. I’m organizing information every day, in my brain, and in Google Docs! It’s part of my process. I have to internalize things to feel like I can be fluent and translate those concepts to make sure our products are building toward a shared strategy and are easy to use.

What specifically are you working on at Google right now?

My focus is two-fold. I work in an advocate role for the company-wide digital wellbeing initiative, and I also manage our Fit UX team. My interest in people and human behavior is very much what drew me to digital wellbeing. For the past two years, we’ve spent our time defining what “digital wellbeing” means. More recently, we’ve tried to pivot from a focus on screen time as the most important metric to really empowering people by default. What I mean by that is there are ways we as product designers can build wellbeing into our product experiences, so people don’t have so much to worry about when it comes to using tech. Because we’re a cross-Google team, we’re really focused on providing expertise from a research-based set of best practices. So we established a digital wellbeing toolkit, which includes four key tenets: empowerment, awareness, control, and adaptability, and applied those in a variety of ways.

How do those tenets show up in products?

Sleep is a great example of how people’s fundamental needs to drive Google’s product priorities. Sleep is so critical to overall wellbeing, and we’ve heard from people all over the world that they’re not getting enough of it. We imagined we could help people get more sleep by making our products more adaptable. You look at Android, Google Assistant, and YouTube and realize that if they were more coordinated they could work together to help people get more sleep. That’s when we came up with Bedtime mode, which uses Clock to set your preferred schedule. That schedule then activates features like Grayscale and Do Not Disturb to help you disconnect, and stay that way.

The underlying tenet that makes this work is adaptability, where each experience takes the person’s preferences into account; in this case, that preference is their bedtime schedules. Then all the devices and apps adjust to support those needs: Your bedtime clock notifies you to wind down, apps turn to Grayscale, and when your phone docks, it goes into Do Not Disturb automatically. Google Assistant also has a Bedtime routine that follows this schedule.

2 Clock Bedtime

In your digital wellbeing research, is there anything that’s really surprised you?

Maybe it’s not fully surprising in the canon of human behavior, but in our annual survey of user sentiment, it always strikes me that people have more concern about others’ use of tech than their own. There’s a higher percentage of care related to their loved ones’ tech use, but when it comes to reflecting on their own, that percentage of care is much lower. We have a hard time seeing and changing our own behavior.

Has quarantine changed your thinking about digital wellbeing at all, or made anything more clear to you?

Aside from shifting the focus from screen time to positive use of tech, the other thing that jumped off the page for me is the interplay between digital access and mental health. We’ve seen an increase in people’s feelings of disconnection from others due to social isolation, and therefore, the use of tech is seen as positive because it helps them feel more connected. On the other hand, we’ve seen early indicators that income and race may determine a person’s access to tech, and that access can play a role in wellbeing. For example, certain populations are suffering from shared grief, given some of the recent health and recent events, and they can benefit from more digital tools that help with communication, mental health, and more. Yet this gap remains between access to information and tools to support wellbeing. And we’re looking into ways to bridge that divide.