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Summary:

Tech companies have become increasingly adept at manufacturing desire, but to what end? Behavior designer Jason Hreha argues that the industry needs to seriously consider the impact of its products. Are we helping our users lead better lives, or are we making them compulsive, impatient and distractible?

addiction_xjara69

I am a behavior designer. I take a deep understanding of human psychology and emerging research in the behavioral sciences to build products that change user behavior in planned and predictable ways. However, these days I’m somewhat dismayed by the persistent chatter about building “addictive” products. When did addiction become an admirable thing to cultivate?

As members of the tech industry, we need to ask serious questions about the behaviors that we are promoting. Are we really helping people live better lives? Or, are we promoting suboptimal habits and aptitudes? At best, many of the products we’re building are time wasters. At worst, they’re the addictive equivalents of cigarettes — irresistible cheap thrills that feel good in the moment, but are destructive in the long run. “Addictive” products are rampant in our lives — Facebook, Farmville (or any Zynga game), Twitter, Pinterest. The list goes on and on.

With Web products, the general assumption is that user attention can eventually be turned into money, so revenue models are often postponed. In this paradigm, success is measured in terms of user acquisition and retention. The more users you have, and the more time they spend on the site, the better. Designers of these products have learned to manufacture desire — and they’ve gotten really good at it. Services such as Facebook and Farmville constantly interrupt the lives of their users by sending out push notifications like there’s no tomorrow. But this shift towards compulsive and chronic usage might have some unintended consequences.

I worry that by promoting constant task switching and multitasking, the Internet is changing our attention. Just as muscles grow stronger with use, and persistent practice makes any skill better, some of our most subtle mental abilities grow or wither with our choices. It’s rare for a whole hour to go by without some interruption from our phones (or email, etc.), and computer and mobile interfaces have made multitasking easier than ever. While the jury is still out, it’s a real possibility that heavy multitasking is increasing compulsiveness and distractibility.

So what do we do? To me, the answer is simple. We should ask “why.” If we’re going to bring positive creations into the world, we need to seriously think about how our products are going to fit into, and enrich, people’s lives. What’s the reason we’re building these products in the first place? “To get acquired” or “to make a lot of money,” shouldn’t necessarily be our answers. Focusing on maximizing certain metrics, and creating numerically “successful” products, distracts us from bigger questions about the purpose of technology, and what role we as technologists should play in the larger community.

I believe that the purpose of technology is to take over the grating, tedious tasks that we have had to put up with for so long, so that we can live fuller, more interesting lives. In short, technology allows us to be even more human by becoming less mechanistic.

If none of us ever had to work, I think that our activities would cluster into three areas: art, interpersonal interaction and discovery (science, academic research, curiosity). While this is a much longer discussion, I worry that our community is aiming to make technology and content consumption our primary activity, instead of helping us engage in these creative and personal endeavors.

I’m not trying to be the crotchety, out-of-touch naysayer. Personally, I love LOLcats, Reddit, and many other services that could be classified as time wasters. The trick is moderation. The problem is that we, as a product design community, are purposely trying to create compulsions.

I don’t have the answers. I’m not saying that we should stop building. I’m just saying that we should take a hard look at ourselves and determine whether or not we’re bringing value to the world. We have the chance to do something spectacular with technology. We have the chance to make billions of lives easier and more enjoyable. We have the chance to free people from tedium. Let’s take this opportunity to build timesaving — and lifesaving — services, not quick hits.

This is a call to make more Amazons, eBays, and AirBnBs. A call to build fewer Zyngas. As I said before, I don’t have the answer. But with all the brainpower in Silicon Valley, I think we can figure this out. I’d like to use this post as a starting point for the discussion. Let’s hash it out, together, in the comments below.

Jason is the founder of Dopamine (ironic, we know), a behavior/UX design firm based in San Francisco. He named the company after his favorite neurotransmitter, which is involved in learning as well as addiction. It’s a reminder of design’s ability to be either helpful or, if misused, harmful. He is also a UX mentor for 500 Startups and a researcher in the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. He blogs at persuasive.ly

Image courtesy of Flickr user xjara69.

  1. Well done. I agree with pretty much all that you said.

    What is most annoying is that some of these time wasters won’t take “I quit” seriously, and keep on pushing stuff at you.

    Perhaps it is time to go back to the days for .45 calibre punctuation .

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  2. Great article Jason. Thank you for writing it. This hints at the larger question that has always persisted in Silicon Valley (and in the business community in general). Do you create something for profit or for impact?

    As you indicated, the answer doesn’t have to be one or the other – if we can use “addiction” to drive positive behavior (Health & Wellness apps, Learning apps, etc) , then it is a win win.

    The only issue is you will always have those that are purely profit driven (both on the entrepreneur and the VC front); there is not much the community can do to stop those people as they work with each other.

    You have to take the good with the bad. Hopefully articles like this will influence some of the younger folks that are in Silicon Valley so they can lean more towards the good. Additionally, most of the “bad” leaning companies eventually die out and are not able to sustain for the long-term.

    I see this as a call for socially-responsible behavior design. :-)

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    1. Naveed – thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      I think that the profit/impact dichotomy is very interesting. I believe that the job climate of the past few years has channeled more profit/money-motivated individuals into Silicon Valley – since individuals that were more monetarily motivated (and would have gone into finance etc.) were not able to get traditional corporate finance jobs in the recession.

      To address another one of your points: I’m not sure that there’s necessarily such a thing as a “positive” addiction.

      From Wikipedia: “Addiction is the continued use of a mood altering substance or behaviour despite adverse dependency consequences,[1] or a neurological impairment leading to such behaviors.[2]”

      Addictions/compulsions have adverse consequences. Let’s use running as an example of a healthy behavior that someone might want to get people “addicted” to. Running a couple of times a week is good for the body – it’s healthy. However, running more than a certain number of miles a week will hurt the joints and negatively stress other bodily systems. Thus, an individual who has been prompted to compulsively run, is not necessarily in a healthy or desirable situation. Moderation is almost always a good thing – and moderation is exactly what compulsion/addiction destroys.

      Thus, I have a problem with the whole idea of “desirable” addictions. Most things done to excess are harmful.

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  3. Jason,

    This is something we need to be thinking about. But I feel the this shouldn’t be discussed in a morality/productivity context because they tend to be subjective and mean different things to different people.

    I feel addiction should be broken into 2-3 driving factors:

    1. Content: Content can be addictive. The entire cyberporn industry thrives off that premise. When it comes to content, it’s very difficult to draw the line.

    2. Design: I feel there is a fundamental disconnect in the way we build engagement in products. There are far too many false layered incentives (gamified) towards product usage which build compulsive behaviors aimed at short term gratification. I feel that is going to be harmful in the long run. Real engagement where the product delivers delight on a regular basis is quite different. If I follow the right set of people on twitter, it offers me real and sustainable engagement. It doesn’t assk me to keep coming back and interrupting my schedule for some stupid points.

    3. Experiences: Technology is becoming more immersive with mobile and will get worse with wearable computing. If anyone doubts that, look at South Korea where parents fail to take care of their own children while taking care of a virtual puppy (true story, the child died). If you think of it, the offline world and the online world are both interpretations in the brain. If our brain gets too conditioned to the online world, it will start interpreting that as reality.

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    1. Sangeet – thank you so much for these thoughtful comments!

      I love how you broke down addiction, and I think you’re right. Certain content, by its very nature, is addictive. Porn is a great example of what we call a “superstimulus”. It takes advantage of natural affinities we have for certain bodily shapes and fertility markers by exaggerating them through selection, surgery, and film techniques. The donut is another good example of a superstimulus, since it takes advantage of our natural predilection for fat and sugar.

      ===

      As for design… Luckily, most companies do not have a great grasp of classic reinforcement psychology. Otherwise, the products they put out would be far more addictive. The trend I see amongst my friends and colleagues is that most gamified products see an initial, robust spike in engagement, followed by a quick drop into inactivity. This reminds me of my game-playing behavior when I was younger. Most games are made to be completed – there’s an end-point.* That’s why, after a certain amount of time in a gamified product, it seems like most users either feel like they’ve won (and should therefore move on) or that the game/product is boring and improperly designed.

      I also think there’s a bigger issue: Generally, gamified products are not solving a true pain point in the lives of their users.

      Amazon doesn’t need to have points and badges – people come back to it, day after day, because it helps them live an easier, more enjoyable, life. It supplies them with products and services they need to survive and thrive.

      The same thing can’t be said about sites like Turntable.fm, and other heavily gamified services. They don’t provide a solution to any true pain points, so they rely on external value systems (points etc.) to take up a place of importance in the brains of their users.

      ===

      Finally, I think that you made quite a profound point about real vs. digital. I don’t have the time to write about it at this moment – but will follow up with a comment later today.

      * This trend, however, is changing with MMORPGs.

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  4. Jason,

    This is something we need to be thinking about. But I feel the this shouldn’t be discussed in a morality/productivity context because they tend to be subjective and mean different things to different people.

    I feel addiction should be broken into 2-3 driving factors:

    1. Content: Content can be addictive. The entire cyberporn industry thrives off that premise. When it comes to content, it’s very difficult to draw the line.

    2. Design: I feel there is a fundamental disconnect in the way we build engagement in products. There are far too many false layered incentives (gamified) towards product usage which build compulsive behaviors aimed at short term gratification. I feel that is going to be harmful in the long run. Real engagement where the product delivers delight on a regular basis is quite different. If I follow the right set of people on twitter, it offers me real and sustainable engagement. It doesn’t assk me to keep coming back and interrupting my schedule for some stupid points.

    3. Experiences: Technology is becoming more immersive with mobile and will get worse with wearable computing. If anyone doubts that, look at South Korea where parents fail to take care of their own children while taking care of a virtual puppy (true story, the child died). If you think of it, the offline world and the online world are both interpretations in the brain. If our brain gets too conditioned to the online world, it will start interpreting that as reality.

    I am currently thinking a lot about this topic too and keep writing on http://platformed.info

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  5. Excellent post Jason!

    My take on things:

    1. current economic system doesn’t incentivise “good” companies. Companies just need to make money, so that’s what they do.
    2. learning about human behavior and addiction seems to be a good way to drive profits. So markets push the development of this knowledge
    3. there are companies that look for the sweet spot people, profit, planet
    4. the latter companies will also profit from the knowlegde that is being developed by “bad” companies

    A change in the incentives within the current would have great potential to make the world a better place. Until that time it’s hoping for more human companies that will do great.

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    1. Arjan – nice points.

      Traditionally, negative externalities are taxed and ventures with positive externalities are subsidized. However, I’m not really one for government intervention. I hope that people can vote with their pocketbooks, punishing companies that produce mental negative externalities (increased compulsiveness, distractibility, etc.) by turning away from them.

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      1. Hi Jason,

        I think Harvard Prof. Michael Sandel makes a pretty good case for where to draw the line. What is the responsibilty of government and what’s not.

        That still leaves great potential for a new economic system that rewards good.

        But as you know humans a pretty complex. Take Ecotax for example an incentive to behave more sustainable. But as Dan Ariely showed with his daycare study that taxing (or fining) something changes the frame of an activity and can even increase bad behavior.

        Enough work to be done for behavioral scientists like yourself ;-)

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  6. Finally, an intelligent and honest article.
    This behaviour you have described originates a lot in Silicon Valley. Also a lot of genuine world problems are still not addressed by the tech world. But the real shocker is that the vast amount of moneys paid to startups which yield little…best example being hotmail. And how VCs keep funding peculiar businesses and how cos even buy them for outrageous sums. Why should people not aim to exploit the entire mindless ecosystems ?

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  7. Antawn souffrant Monday, September 3, 2012

    Growth companies (I.e., Apple) must continue to spur revenue streams. New products and services are the lifeblood of growth companies. Improved versions of products,which are produced and sold reccuringly, create addictive habits for consumers. Their are a variety of reasons that consumers of growth companies develope addictive purchasing habits.The addictive purchasing habits for consumers are both fashionably and functionally induced. Fashionable trends(I.e., design and asscesory ) impairs consumers,causing unwarranted repeat business.Minor improvements are made to products during recurring introductory periods. Rather than making educated purchases,consumers are convinced by advertising,indicating that the latest devices must be an infallibly necessary purchase.

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    1. Antawn – you make an interesting point about our society as a whole.

      We seem to live in a society that is extremely focused on external solutions to our problems. Sad? Go get some ice-cream. Happy? You should buy a car!

      It looks as if we have been somewhat conditioned to change, and express, our internal feelings through consumption behavior. Very few objects in our lives, if any, are pure utilities anymore. Our purchases are either representations of our values/selves, or done to change our moods.

      There’s a fascinating documentary about the creation of modern marketing/PR that talks about our shift from a needs-based society to a wants-based society – and how it was engineered by people like Edward Bernays. You should check it out: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Century_of_the_Self

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  8. Dear Jason,

    I’d agree that we have individual lives and a shared world worth investing in for the long-term.

    To me, the problem you state appears similar on both the entrepreneurship side and the consumer side – when we have everyone chasing the cheap hit, we are unable to tap into our potential to do more, to build bigger and better dreams.

    So, how do you change the minds of people pursuing the cheap hit? Seems overly difficult.

    This beckons the question: can we find hits that aren’t inherently at odds with long-term value creation?

    It seems like a good place to start – building products that satisfy short-term desires and simultaneously align with long-term vision, will induce investors and consumers to make increasing investments to get increasing returns.

    The other question I have: can the current ‘cheap hits’ be leveraged into more mature products?

    Taking what’s already available (attention, engagement) and moving these products forward to continually increase the complexity of human expression, and/or to continually deepen the human connection seems like a potential solution addressing the idea that these companies do not create long-term value for people’s lives.

    I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

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