Meghan Keaney Anderson

We’re a tech company, and even we think you need a break from screens

Years ago now, like so many in the tech industry, I read Hooked by Nir Eyal. It is to this day an exceptional business book. In Hooked, Eyal breaks down the mechanics of an addictive tech product — the series of incentives that reward engagement and generate a psychological yearning to keep using your devices, apps, platforms, and digital networks. Even when your eyes are tired. Even when it’s late and you swore you’d go to sleep hours earlier. Even when it’s an absolutely perfect summer day outside and the light is hitting the water just so.

When it first came out, many treated Hooked as a manual for building remarkable products in the internet age. Ten years later, even Eyal was reframing it more as a warning for what we can do to ourselves if we’re not careful. In what seemed almost like a form of penance, Eyal’s follow up book Indistractable served as a sort of antidote to the attention-draining systems to which we’ve all but succumbed. It does not place the root cause of distraction at technology’s feet (for that he points to the insatiability of human nature) but he does call it a proximate cause and provides tips for how to stave off the lure of it and keep your focus.

You’ve got to respect someone who has the capacity to evolve their thinking. It’s even more germane in this case, I think, because that personal evolution is the kind of reflection that is only really achievable when you’ve got uninterrupted time to think — you know, the sort of time one reclaims by putting down their screens every once in awhile.

This is not some manifesto against technology. I freaking love technology. Having come-of-age when the internet first showed up, I saw how transformative it is. What it makes possible for our society, our world, and our potential is something that will always awe me. But the key phrase there is: What it makes possible. I worry about a world in which the experience starts and ends within the confines of technology. A world in which we allow our digital devices to drive us to the vista but then never actually get out of the car.

Technology should be the enabler of an experience, not the totality of it.

A few months ago I joined The Wanderlust Group, a collection of people working to build the digital infrastructure of the outdoors. After a year experienced almost entirely through screens — Zoom meetings into Twitter doom scrolls into Netflix binges — it was a welcomed change of focus. Through their brands Dockwa, and Campouts, The Wanderlust Group works to lower the barriers to getting outside by making it easier for adventurers to connect to destinations, and helping those same destinations grow and prosper.

I loved the vision. And I really loved the audacity of using technology to get people off technology.

How exactly do you build a tech company that gets people to spend less time on technology?

You create north star metrics that aren’t all about time-spend in-app.

At The Wanderlust Group each team has its own OKRs, but we all share one big one: Nights booked. A night booked through Dockwa correlates to time that our boaters spend on the water. How many times were we able to pull a boater off their couch and onto a mooring in one of our marina’s harbors. It’s a metric that benefits boaters, marinas and our company. And it underscores every decision we make.

As Melillo explains it in a recent interview with The Org:

“We’re not looking to create a bunch of hook models to keep people in the product itself or monopolize their time, we want people to come back [to using Dockwa] simply because it’s the fastest way to get out on the water.”

By making your goals about the user experience, and not the product, you inherently build software that is more customer-centric and stickier in more substantial ways.

You find the barriers to getting outside and you uproot them.

People don’t spend all their time behind screens because the view is that much better than the outside world. They do it because it’s easier. It’s easier to watch Youtube clips of exploring the coast by sea, than to actually do it. It’s easier to like instagram posts of the redwoods than to get organized and stand among them. The idea for Dockwa, The Wanderlust Group’s first product came from such a blocker. The founders were in a boat trying to radio into shore to see if they could stop for a bit and explore a seaside town. The radio went unanswered. The adventure went unrealized. They turned back.

Barriers come in all shapes and stages. So we look for ways to remove friction. Whether it’s removing a step from the research process, or adding communication options for engaging with destinations. In a two-sided marketplace like Dockwa, there are barriers on both sides. While boaters are trying to get their attention, marina operators are dealing with one of the worlds most complex Tetris systems. Unlike hotels, which have clear cut availability, marinas take boats of a wide variety of shapes and sizes, entering and exiting at all times during the day. Determining if you have a spot open, helping navigate that boat in, and running the rest of your operation can lead to a chaotic day. We try to remove steps in that process and use technology to surface availability so dockmasters spend less time in their office fielding assignments and more time out on the docks, talking with visitors.

We’re not perfect at this. The pull of standard approaches to building technology and teams is always there, and sometimes the most common way still is the right way. But in a lot of little decisions we make — and some big ones — we’re trying to remember that the reason technology is so magical is because it provides a new way of accessing the world around us. And we’re trying to make sure that that world does not go unexplored.