Monday, September 10, 2012

App Idea: Usage Monitor

It would be useful to have a easily accessible overview of how much time is spent using certain iPhone apps. In the spirit of the ‘Quantified Self’ and general self-awareness it would be helpful to have this sort of oversight:

  • How many hours of podcasts am I actually listening to each week? 
  • Am I spending more time than I realise tending to social media?
  • Am I really writing for half an hour each day?  

At present, there is no built-in mechanism that will allow me to discover the information to answer those kinds of queries. The fundamental data must be available within the iPhone system. There really should be an app for that.

I am a great believer in the use of portable computing to make us more efficient and productive, but equally aware of it’s almost limitless potential for distraction and time-wasting. Therefore, working from the insight that useful data visualisations of even very approximate metrics can help us to change our own behaviours (1) having access to app usage information could both help to mitigate bad habits and hopefully foster better ones.

Let’s take a walk around this ‘Usage App’ idea and look at it from a few angles. I can envisage challenges in deciding exactly what to measure at first. What would count as using an app? Simply ranking apps based on which have been on-screen is insufficient. That would under-represent certain apps including music players, podcast clients and phone apps which can all be used while working in the background. Ranking them based on percentage of CPU time would produce some kind of absolute usage metric, but I don’t think that would give a useful sense of which apps are really absorbing my time. For example, I could spend an hour typing this post in using minimal CPU computing power and then burn up far more cycles playing a graphics-intensive game for five minutes. So perhaps different types of metrics would be needed for different classes of apps and the usage analysis could be an aggregate score from a number of variables. ‘UsageRank’ anyone? Some of those metrics would need to be informed by user-intent to present the desired overview of our attention.

So for example, to measure the hours of podcasts listened to each week I could nominate the relevant apps I want to be tracked under that heading.

Then to understand trends in user behaviour usage could be measured over preset time scales: today; this week to date; this month to date; this year to date. A feature to clear all records would also be useful.

Rather than tracking every single app installed on my iPhone, this service would be more useful if you select which particular apps you are interested in tracking. Given how many iPhones have hundreds of apps installed, there is little utility in having a list where the majority of apps would show zero usage in the last month.

This initial idea supports passive self-improvement through data awareness. The next possible step up from that could be to include a nagging function. So if I decided on any self-imposed time limits for certain apps this could then notify me whenever I was within N minutes of my daily limit.

I imagine that a service of this nature would need to be a system-level app made by Apple. I do not know enough about the underlying technology, but I suspect. that giving any third-party app permission to monitor the run-time activity of all other apps may create many potentially critical security issues. Also, unless there was some way to activate it only whenever switching between apps, this service would need to run continuously in the background at all times, which sounds like system-level activity to me. The fact that I have not come across any app offering this functionality in the App Store also signifies that a product of this nature is either financially unfeasible for third-party developers or falls outside the scope of what is permissible under Apple’s existing SDK agreements.

I have been on the lookout for a personal app UI design project to get my teeth into. Seeing as none of my clients in the day-job have yet to request anything in the app design space from me, I may work up some visuals of this as a personal project. Beyond the simple doodles I jotted down while thinking up this post.

Would you find an app of this nature useful?

Footnote 1: I can recommend as a great example of this self-quantified feedback loop methodology put into practice.