EP 013 - Addictive Design: Don't Listen To This Episode

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My name is Tony Daussat and I’m an addict.


Yes, that’s right. I am an addict.


Let me just… Candidly, about two years ago, over the course of 4 months, I spent over $700 dollars playing Candy Crush Saga. I’m not a gamer, I didn’t have loads of games on my phone, I just had the one. And I spent over Seven. Hundred. Dollars. Playing it. Just saying it outloud now sounds absurd and confounding to me. I tried to tell myself, “Okay, you can play, but have to stop and cannot pay for more lives, or to unlock the next levels.” But these arbitrary parameters were feckless. The game is designed to make you wait. Once you’ve used up your lives, there is a timer that tells you how long you have to wait till you can play again. But the kicker is, you’re only 2 taps away from buying more lives. Two taps doesn’t feel like spending money. Again, this is all by design. Eventually, after SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS, I mustered up the mental strength to delete the game, and quit cold turkey. Even still, the following days, I remember grabbing my phone, unlocking it, and hovering my thumb where the now missing candy crush icon used to be. I’d even accidentally tap open the app that had replaced it’s position. I was addicted.


How did this all happen? How have we all fallen victim to addictive design? For one, it’s the chirps, bings, and buzzes. Every time we hear one of those sounds, or feel a short vibration in our pockets--we feel excited. These are Pavlovian cues. Cues that equal reward. And even though we don’t immediately know what the notification is for--we instantly grab our phones to feed our need for this sensation. The unpredictability adds to our addiction--not unlike the unpredictable outcomes of playing a slot machine. During these moments of uncertainty, we get a hit of dopamine. Dopamine, which our brain releases during pleasurable situations and inspires our need to feel that sensation again and again.


But it goes beyond the chirps, bings and buzzes. Micro-interactions can also lead to addiction. Some unintentionally--and others designed with the full intent of creating habit forming experiences. Take a look at Facebook’s “Like” button. The intention behind the concept was never to create something that would spawn addictive behavior. It was created as a way to respond to a post in a meaningful way, without having to write out a comment. Only now can we see how this micro-interaction has evolved into something that encourages unhealthy habits--the obsessive need for more. Another example would be the simple interaction of the pull-down to refresh functionality so many apps have. An action that was designed as an innocent way to replace a refresh button has now, unintentionally, become more of a slot machine lever than a unique interaction solve. For YouTube, however, there is no mistake that the autoplay function and list of related videos was intentionally designed to create a “rabbit hole” effect. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I’ve gone to YouTube for a specific search like...recipes for yams, and ended up watching hours of fail videos. Or what about the habit forming “infinite scroll” where the content is not paginated, but continues to load as you scroll going on forever and ever.


If you work in digital product design, then you’ve no doubt heard a client, or CEO, say they need their product to be “sticky”. Addictive. Habit-forming. They want users lingering, engaged, and coming back for more. However, making products “sticky” has created a very sticky situation for the human psyche; particularly in teens. To wit, a study conducted by author Adam Atler found that half of teens surveyed would rather have a broken bone than a broken cellphone. Moreover--research from Johns Hopkins University psychologists revealed some teens have even made suicide attempts after having their phones taken from them by their parents.


One of the benefits of being in my early 30s is that my generation is the last to know what life was like before the invention of the smartphone. For me, the premise of a broken bone vs a broken cell phone seems like an obvious choice. However, even adults are not immune to smartphone addiction. According to PEW research…adults spend only 10 hours less per month on their phones than teens do. So, what does this mean? It means we’re all addicts. And like so many addicts, we’re in denial. So much so, that nearly 80% of parents think they are good technology role models for their children. But is 10 hours less per month really enough of a time margin to claim model behavior?


And what about social media induced FOMO--or Fear of Missing out? These networks have capitalized on the the disappearing messages, the stories that only last 24 hours, a constantly updating news feed--all of which are methods designed to keep you engaged and coming back to your phone over and over again. So much so that the average person picks up their phone screen over 80 times a day. That means roughly every 12 minutes the average person interacts with their phone.


So...who is to blame? The CEO that needs the sticky app? After all, be it good or bad, they’re in the business of making money. The Designer? In the end, they’re in the business of keeping their jobs. Or--are we, the “users” to blame? We’re the ones in control of our facilities--we download the apps, play the games, and stream the videos. And yet--can we truly control our digital habits when businesses have purposefully set out to hijack our minds?

I remember the first time Apple’s Screen Time notified me of my phone usage stats. I was appalled. Even working in tech, I made a silent vow that I would lower my usage. However, the next week passed and the numbers had no noticeable change, because...I’m an addict. Even though I would without a doubt rather have my phone break than a bone, to say I’m not an addict would be living in delusion--and would be contrary to my behavior as shown by my screen time dashboard.


So, how can designers create experiences that both satisfy their own conscious, and slake their stakeholder’s thirst for stickiness at the same time?


Well… it takes time, a lot of effort, and a reframing of the business goals.

There is room for more ethical business strategy when it comes to these digital products. It’s a tall order, but it’s about building long term, transparent relationships between products and people. It’s about drawing a line in the sand that forces businesses to reevaluate short-term, finite gains, and to stop equating success with traffic, or time spent in the product. Instead, success should come from meaningful design that adds real value, and encourages people to feel joy, or like they’ve interacted with purposeful utility that doesn’t require them to look at their phones 80 times a day. Granted, this success metric is a lot harder to measure, because it isn’t black and white--it’s rather grey. But it’s time to embrace the grey. It’s a long road to get there, and I certainly do not have all the answers...but I do know it’s something we all need to take a good long look in the mirror about. We need to decide: are we going to continue down the path of designing addictive experiences for short term gains, or are we going to start thinking of the bigger, long-term good of the business and its customers?


At the end of the day, it’s about measuring how we value our time. What is worth your attention? Can you answer it? Even listening to this podcast, I try to create content that will add value to your life. If it doesn’t add value, stop listening--unsubscribe. How many content creators would say that? But that’s the thing...I truly value your time, and I deeply care how you spend that time. I care about you. If you find that real value isn’t being added to your life, your work, how you think, etc - it’s not worth your extremely valuable time. However… if you’re still there, and you’re still listening, I’m: 1.) Very flattered and very humbled. And 2.) happy that this content has added value to your life. If you think a friend or co-worker could gain the same value, let them know by sharing this episode with them. Let’s be mindful about the ways we invest our attention. This feels like an easy way to start.


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