With the increased prevalence of smartphones, people are spending more screen time than face time. Our goal is to reconnect people with other people by disconnecting them from their smartphones and other devices.

How can an app incentivize young people to look away from their screens during meals and engage with one another in conversation?

Sarah Whitmore
Jun Chou
Cameron Armstrong
Drew Kurzman
User & design research
User testing
User interface & branding design
InVision prototyping

Unplugged encourages diners to stay off their devices for the duration of their meal in return for a reward in the form of a deal or discount on their meal. The app holds the party accountable through GPS location services and a lock screen that cannot be disturbed in order to receive the promised deal.

The app’s premise is essentially to gamify socialization — to make it “fun” to stay off your phone and engage with other people.

It would include a social aspect that would list participating restaurants, the deals they offer, and a news feed featuring fellow users and where they having been dining. Studies show that peer recommendation has become the most effective way to advertise a product or service, making the advertising provided by our app more effective for businesses than other apps on the market.

Restaurants receive value at no initial cost because they don’t pay anything until they receive additional business on behalf of Unplugged.

Users receive value through receiving discounts to all their favorite restaurants and an improved dining experience, which additionally reflects well on participating businesses.

Additionally, it allows social groups to motivate themselves to participate in a friendly form of competition and mutually held accountability.

  • Is this idea valuable to you? Why or why not?
  • If you could change any one thing about the idea, what would it be? Why?
  • What would make you use it? What would make you tell a friend or colleague about it?
  • Do you know of or use something similar to this product or service? (HINT: see how they already solve the problem you’re chasing)
  • Would you be willing to pay for this? If so, how much?

Our team conducted interviews with 12 potential users asking the questions listed above. We aimed for people in the 18 – 25 age range and surprisingly discovered that most of our peers felt that phone usage at social meals were a problem. They enjoyed the idea of gamifying the experience through an application. We also determined that most users would not pay for an application.

Preliminary discussions with restaurant staff indicated that restaurants would be interested in a product that keeps customers off their phones and engaged with each other and the meal, improve overall dining experience, and most importantly, bring traffic to their establishment. 11 out of 11 interviewed restaurant owners  encouraged the idea and said they would be willing to share part of the profit if Unplugged brought in new customers. 

“I would be willing to offer always available, omnipotent items as the reward if people stay off of their phones.”  — Chris, Manager at Linda’s

Since we were launching in the quintessence of University towns, Chapel Hill, we wanted to target college students primarily. Unplugged had two main competitors: UConnection and Pocket Points, both being applications that offer discounts at local restaurants. However, Unplugged differentiated itself by being a more social and fun experience through its interactivity and game quality. 

We found out urprisingly through our user interviews that most of our peers felt that cell phone usage was a huge issue at the dining table. The Washington Post reported that one-third of smartphone users use their phones during dinner and that 9 in 10 people feel that their loved ones neglect them in favour of technology on a weekly basis. 

Although using the term “luddite” in our user persona title is humourously hyperbolic, the technology averse attitude of our generation was accurate–– especially at the dinner table. We profiled our target user and continued to base all future decisions on the user persona.

After our initial research, I created an Invision prototype that allowed us to further our user research before delving into the UI. 48 out of the 50 potential users that we surveyed said that they would want to download this app. The majority of those 48 said they would go to a restaurant just because they were featured on the app.
We conducted an experiment with a collaborating restaurant and group of users who we incentivized with the possibility of free food. I gave each participant the prototype I designed and the Unplugged team watched their behaviours when interacting with the application throughout the meal.

Linda’s Bar and Grill, the participating restaurant and Chapel Hill staple since 1976, agreed to give a free appetizer to the group if they succeeded in staying off their phones for the duration of the meal. The users succeeded and were thrilled to be treated to a delicious appetizer sampler basket!

My team was fortunate enough to pitch our idea to a group of judges who acted as potential investors to question us on the feasibility, viability, and desirability of Unplugged.