Sundar Pichai Talks Technological Interruptions

One of the changes between Android 4.4 Kit Kat and 5.0 Lollipop is the introduction of a Priority Notifications mode, a change which is echoed in the Android Wear smartwatches too. The idea behind the Priority Notifications mode is that the customer, or user, will only be disturbed by the things that he or she deem important to them. Other, lesser notifications will be ignored by the devices. We have also seen something of a push from companies and businesses offering products designed to reduce how much time we spend staring at our smartphones. As the centre of our electronic world, the smartphone is in a prime location to occupy much of our time, but there is an increasing movement to take users' attention back to the real world. Google's senior vice president of products, Sundar Pichai, is a part of a movement designed such that Google's products give customers more of a balance between providing you with information and also leaving you to it. In a recent interview, Sundar discussed the issues of smartphone overuse, the negative implications on society and some of the technological advances that Google has to help mitigate the issue.

Of the questions posed to Sundar regarding humanity's overuse of technology, he makes some very valid points: the smartphone has evolved into becoming a very important piece of personal technology and use of it has changed. Customer expectations have grown together with their use of the technology. One way to manage the use is to reduce the interruption from the device, but to also recognize that many individuals use their smartphones because they want to. Sundar makes the example of the Google team dinner the night before Google I/O. Sundar would make the entire team place their devices into a basket so that there were no interruptions, but the most nervous individuals were those in the public relations teams, fearful of missing an important call from the journalists asking questions about the event. Part of Google's efforts is going into managing interruptions; having the device understand that it needs to handle a call or message from a spouse differently to a random stranger. There are already third party applications and services designed to handle certain interruptions and of course the user can set up priority applications too. Sundar also cites the example of social networks, which have to deal with people going off the record for a time: the issue is less a smartphone one and more an industry or technology issue.

Some of the examples of Google trying to use technology to better handle interruptions include Android Auto and Android Wear. Android Auto contains technologies designed to help the user receive the important information to them together with minimizing distraction. Android Wear allows the user to handle interruptions with a glance to the wrist rather than retrieving a smartphone from a pocket. These are early generation products with much work to be done, but it's clear that Google are laying the foundations. Another example of a system designed to better handle interruptions is Google Now, for example with how Now reminds users to leave for a meeting at the right time, including travel time and potential delays. In Sundar's opinion, the best applications in the Play Store are those that elegantly handle notifications. The worst ones are those that are simply trying to get the customer back into the application and so handle notifications in a different way. The applications should serve the user, not the other way around. Sundar's closing remarks concern product design, where in his ideal world, his smartphone will interrupt him if he is about to miss something important (such as his kid's birthday) but will not bother him with another interruption if he is doing something important. We are not there, but part of Sundar (and Larry Page's) vision for Google products and services is to make the technology transparent to the user, but instead make it all about the experience.

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About the Author

David Steele

Senior Staff Writer
I grew up with 8-bit computers and moved into PDAs in my professional life, using a number of devices from early Windows CE clamshells and later. Today, my main devices are a Nexus 5X, a Sony Xperia Z Tablet and a coffee cup.