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We need more apps and devices designed to help families connect to each other

As a father myself, I’d love to see that change.

A smart family assistant, Picniic is one of the first apps that actively seeks to solve problems for families, and that’s refreshing.

A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.

Technology has done an amazing job of helping empower us as individuals — we can do more, and more quickly and easily, because of technology. But technology can also be isolating, separating us from each other as we retreat into our own virtual worlds. When technology does provide connections between people, it’s often between friends rather than families. There have been few apps, devices or other technologies designed to really help families in a meaningful way. I’d love to see that change.

Technology can be isolating

Most technology is aimed at individuals, each in their own bubbles. Algorithms learn about us as individual human beings, not as groups or families. That’s fine when it comes to much of the technology we consume, because we use it for our own personal interests and tasks. But it can also mean we’re each retreating into our own virtual worlds, carefully customized and curated for each of us. Even when we’re physically together as families, we’re often absorbed in our own devices and activities, separate mentally and emotionally.

The same technology that has so much power to enrich our lives individually, then, often disempowers families seeking to build connections and relationships and to form bonds. Technology becomes a barrier rather than an enabler of those relationships, and many a parent has struggled to find ways to overcome them. To the extent that companies have sought to provide technology for families, they’ve often focused on enabling parents to abdicate responsibility through time limits, parental controls and the like, rather than giving them tools they can actively use or connecting them to their children.

There are exceptions

This is not to say technology has done nothing for families in recent years — I’ve actually seen some real examples of technology being put to good use in helping families. Here are just three:

  • Netflix’s user profiles: Netflix introduced user profiles a few years back, and they’ve been very useful in our family for separating viewing by my wife and myself from the shows our kids watch. That has two benefits: The parents and kids each get recommendations based on their viewing, not each other’s, and the kids aren’t unexpectedly presented with adult shows. Our children’s shared profile is explicitly a Kids profile, and is designed differently and populated with different content appropriate for their age group. They know how to select the proper profile when watching and, though we tend to keep a close eye on what they’re actually watching, we can let them choose their own shows because we know it’s going to be a safe list of content to choose from.
  • Apple’s Family Sharing functionality: We’ve only recently started using this, as our oldest child has begun using her own device as opposed to relying on shared iPads. She doesn’t use it extensively yet, but does have her own Apple Music account on our family plan, and is able to request permission to download apps, which I can then grant on my phone. We still typically have a conversation about the purchase or download in person first, but the technology enables a seamless execution once we’ve agreed in principle. Our kids also get access to their TV shows and movies which I’ve purchased on my account in the same way.
  • Picniic: This is an app I came across recently when the firm’s PR reps reached out to me following a column I wrote on smart home assistants. Though positioned as a smart home tool, what Picniic really represents is a smart family assistant. It’s one of the first apps I’ve come across which actively seeks to solve problems for families, and that’s refreshing. It allows families to share calendars, meal plans, grocery lists and so on, representing a sort of virtual noticeboard or refrigerator door. I haven’t used the app extensively yet — I suspect that it’s more useful for those families with hectic schedules and children being ferried to and from music lessons and soccer games, something our kids are mostly too young for at this point. But I can see the utility and admire the focus on helping families.

There are also lots of general-purpose technologies that families can leverage, from Skype to texting to shared cloud-based calendars. I put out a request on both Twitter and Facebook to ask what technology families were using to help them connect and communicate and much of it was in this generic category.

Some requests

However, I think the industry can still do better, and there are opportunities for innovators to meet needs currently unmet. As I asked about how families use technology today, I also asked what more could be done. Based on those responses and my own thoughts, here are some requests:

  • Better device sharing: Google and Amazon have both done some interesting things here, but Apple in particular still doesn’t have a great way to share devices between family members such that the interface or the apps available are different on a per-user basis. As I mentioned above, the Family Sharing setup is great for sharing content between devices used by different individuals, but there’s no equivalent for multi-user support on a single device (except in an education setting).
  • Learning about and making recommendations for families: As I said, technology is great at learning about and customizing experiences for individuals, but there’s no equivalent for families. I also mentioned that my wife and I and our kids share two profiles on Netflix, but Netflix isn’t really learning about us as individuals. Rather, it thinks we are these strange hybrid creatures who like weepies and action movies on the one hand, and TV shows for toddlers and tweens on the other. I’ve seen some interesting demos of technology that combine individual preferences based on who’s watching, but that’s about as far as it has gone.
  • More content for families: I’ve written previously about the TV industry’s lack of imagination when it comes to using the new-found freedom enabled by digital-first platforms to create content for families, and I’d love to see more innovation in this area. But I’d also like to see more technological solutions for filtering and parental controls. VidAngel, a service my family has been using regularly, provides filters to remove swearing and other objectionable content from TV shows and movies so we can watch them as a family; it was shut down (hopefully temporarily) by a judge last week. Content and technology companies are still often far too user-hostile when it comes to content and families.
  • More apps for families to use together: We’ve enjoyed a number of apps, especially on the new Apple TV, that recreate the old board-game experience for a digital age. But there are still few of these relative to games intended for solo use, or games which are too violent for me to want to share with my kids. I feel like the industry is making progress, but there’s more to be done. It’s worth noting that many board games cost upward of $20, which leaves plenty of price umbrella for digital competitors to squeeze under.
  • Apps to help manage families: I mentioned Picniic, which is notable for being one of a very few apps that really seek to serve families and help them manage their time and activities. But there’s room in the market for more than one such app. We could see plenty more innovation here.

I’m generally optimistic when it comes to technology — it’s both the focus of my work and a massive enabler of what I do. I also use technology heavily within my family for all kinds of things. But the benefits to families have so far been mostly incidental, rather than a result of deliberate efforts to help and serve families, and that’s something that could stand to change. Whether it’s the big platform and device companies putting more effort into all of this, or startups launching apps or devices to help, I’d love to see more innovation in this area.

Jan Dawson is founder and chief analyst at Jackdaw, a technology research and consulting firm focused on the confluence of consumer devices, software, services and connectivity. During his 13 years as a technology analyst, Dawson has covered everything from DSL to LTE, and from policy and regulation to smartphones and tablets. Prior to founding Jackdaw, Dawson worked at Ovum for a number of years, most recently as chief telecoms analyst, responsible for Ovum’s telecoms research agenda globally. Reach him @jandawson.

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