Apple’s new Focus tool is painfully distracting


An iPhone lying face down on a table.
An update to iOS is causing headaches, missed texts, and fights between friends. | Ming Yeung/Getty Images

Tech companies are doing a bad job of helping us use their devices less.

You’re trying to focus on work, so you need to see notifications from Slack — but not from, say, your mom and Facebook. But what if the plumber who’s supposed to fix your sink tries to call, or if your mom really does have an emergency and is not just sending you an out-of-focus photo of her new shower curtain?

Apple’s new productivity tool for iPhones, Focus, is intended to limit distractions by letting you specify when you want to turn off notifications from certain apps and contacts. The problem is it’s not especially intuitive and takes a lot of work to set up right. As a result, since Apple began rolling out the feature to iPhone users in September, many people have missed work calls, home repair visits, and doctor appointments. Social media is full of confused people wondering why they weren’t notified of calls and why it seems as though everyone’s messages are silenced. Moms are wondering if their daughters are mad at them or if the person who urgently called about a plugged sink suddenly figured out how to unclog the drain on their own.

In an effort to help people avoid distractions, Apple has created new ones for some.

The Focus feature, which Apple says “lets you stay in the moment when you need to concentrate,” is the latest effort from Apple and other tech companies meant to help untangle us from the hold their products have on us. After all, our phones and computers have become our main communication method, our entertainment, and, for some, our source of livelihood.

The feature was introduced as part of Apple’s new operating system last fall, though it has taken months for it to roll out widely to most iPhone users. And how it rolled out is part of the problem. When you did finally update your iOS software — or you remembered to leave your phone plugged in at night so it could automatically update — all you saw was a quick notification telling you that the tool existed and offering to show you what it does. That’s the type of notification that busy, harried people — precisely those who might need the feature in the first place — quickly swipe out of the way and plan to get to later, someday. When some of them finally did remember to use the feature, they might not completely understand what it does. Apple did not respond to a question about what share of iPhone users are using the feature.

Even people who work on this sort of stuff for a living had trouble with Focus. Vanessa Bowen, a user experience designer who specializes in design systems, says she appreciates Apple’s minimal design but missed a psychiatric appointment when she turned on the personal version of Focus, which lets you customize which contacts and apps you want to hear from on your own time. She didn’t realize that to get those appointment notifications, she’d have to add her calendar to a list of acceptable apps or opt to allow time-sensitive notifications to get through even in Focus mode.

That kind of mishap can have real repercussions.

“I wouldn’t get my prescription filled in time, and I’d probably be out for lord knows how many days the next availability is,” Bowen said. “In these instances, when it’s a really big feature and it will interfere with your life in terms of missing calls or important reminders from your calendar, I don’t think they really thought that out.” She added, “There wasn’t really time in my life to actually allow me to set it up properly, nor did it inform me of what it would do.”

That means mere mortals don’t stand much of a chance, especially since the setup is lengthy and nonintuitive. (Barbara Krasnoff at The Verge called the options “daunting” but ultimately “worth it.”)

That’s because turning on Focus turns off all your notifications from people and apps you don’t specifically add, rather than just the specific people and apps you’d like to mute notifications from. (When setting up the different focus modes, Apple does offer some suggestions of people to add as exceptions based on your recent device usage.) While the process of inclusion rather than exclusion works in some circumstances, it doesn’t here, Bowen said. How could you anticipate that you’d want to add, say, your exterminator as a contact you’d want to get through to you even while your Focus mode is on? Or maybe you didn’t realize putting on “do not disturb” also meant shutting off something as important as calendar notifications. Finally, by default, the feature tells others you’ve silenced notifications — an announcement not everyone would assume you’re signed up for.

The setup of this feature seems to contradict Apple’s longstanding reputation for building technology that’s easy to use. As Dieter Bohn at The Verge put it, playing on an old Apple slogan: “Figuring out Apple settings have gone from ‘It just works’ to ‘It’s just work.’”

Users’ complaints about the product suggest they misunderstand what it does or how to use it, or perhaps mistakenly activated it in the first place. Either way, it’s not on them, but on Apple.

Amber Case, author of Calm Technology, a book about designing technology to be less taxing on our attention, thinks Apple is on the right path but hasn’t gotten there yet.

“I commend them for trying something that’s hard,” Case told Recode. “They should keep going and test more granularly and keep trying. This will get better over time.”

That said, Case thinks Apple could have done things better from the start, by calling it an experimental feature or by better coaching people how to use it. Case also said there should be an easier way to report errors or edge cases that don’t work.

“All of the people using this feature right now are part of a huge beta test,” Case said.

Apple, for its part, said it beta tested the setting soon after it was announced in June to September 2021, so developers and members of the public could download the feature and provide feedback. The company said that it will continue to monitor social media and Apple support to learn what issues iPhone users are having with it and to make improvements.

Introducing features that encourage people to control their devices rather than have their devices control them is certainly a step in the right direction. However, making it easier to use them less should be just as easy as using them too much in the first place.

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