Blog Post

When did addiction become a good thing?

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

Image courtesy of Flickr user xjara69.

55 Responses to “When did addiction become a good thing?”

  1. Buyer beware also applies here. Individuals need to take ownership of way they choose to spend their time – children need to have guidance to learn how to manage their response to the marketing insanity. I find I am turned off by the constant demands to give up my time and experience to a corporate desire for more profit.

  2. Benjamin Baier

    What a masterpiece jason!

    Your article could be figuratively just a copy of our startup’s vision so I was soaking up each word of you literally like a sponge before I forwarded it immediately to my colleagues.

    A lot of people are at odds with all kind of computers and its build on services. They argue computers totally let us forget what our real-life is all about. In some way I do agree with them.
    But one thing is for certain though: as long as a computer (smartphone/app/you name it) is used for the right purpose in terms of a tool – just like you use your own car to get from a to b – it can definitely enrich our all lifes.

    cheers from germany

    Benni B.

  3. Every moment a bored disaffected teenager spends on Madden Football 2012, Diablo III, Fantasy Football, Farmville, or pimping themselves on webcam is a moment they’re not spending on some miscreance harming greater society or hard drugs. Compared to the 1980s, crime is way down. Teenage pregnancy is way down. With the economic indicators looking like things are about to go to hell even more than they already are, let’s continue to keep those teenagers engaged in cheap activities largely benign to the rest of us thank ye very much.

    • Someone who knows better

      >Compared to the 80’s crime is down

      Did you even LIVE through those times? I did, and I can assure you, crime is WORSE now than it was then.

      >Teenage Pregnancy is down

      Temporarily. Now, it’s headed back up. Seems abstinence only works as long as you hold out. Oh, and that dip you’re talking about occurred at the start of the 90’s. Wrong decade.

      > keep teens busy before the economy blows out

      Never mind. Seems you’d rather see them ignorant and self-absorbed, instead of engaged in the world.

  4. civisisus

    leave it to self-congratulatory silly valley denizens, having the world as their oyster, to turn it into a navel

    I’m pretty sure I’d prefer you all distracted & ditzy to “pensive”, emo, & self-indulgent

  5. Jason,

    I am Inspired by your piece. The non-profit organization I work for facilitates a program that connects highly successful people in the Bay Area with people from the Tenderloin / SOMA neighborhoods in San Francisco. One of the major, interconnected problems in these concentrated pockets of poverty is hardcore drug and alcohol addiction.

    After 6 years, we have always seen that pairing people who seemingly have it all together with someone in an honest 12 Step program is something that helps the ”successful” people see their own addictions and obsessions.

    Your article does a good job pointing out some of the high tech track marks. Keep up the good work.

  6. Jason,

    I am Inspired by your piece. The non-profit organization I work for facilitates a program that connects highly successful people in the Bay Area with people from the Tenderloin / SOMA neighborhoods in San Francisco. One of the major, interconnected problems in these concentrated pockets of poverty is hardcore drug and alcohol addiction.

    After 6 years, we have always seen that pairing people who seemingly have it all together with someone in an honest 12 Step program is something that helps the “successful” people see their own addictions and obsessions.

    Your article does a good job pointing out some of the high tech track marks. It reminds me a little of Don Draper’s “Why I Quit Tobacco” letter. Keep up the good work.

  7. Great points. It seems to all come down to motivation in my mind. Many people (some developers included) likely don’t really care about anything but their bottom line. Sad… selfish… and very short-sighted. I’ll be interested to see what traction your article spurs…

  8. Clinton Wu

    This is a great post considering the times we’re currently going through. Everyone is writing about internet and screen addiction. As Jason alludes to, we need to flip our mindset. “We” being those who create the consumption vehicles that can drive compulsive behavior. Instead of focusing on pageviews and time spent online, there need to be tools and platforms that encourage healthier digital habits or moderation as Jason says. That’s what we’re working on at Skim.Me. We want users to consume digital content across their devices in a more productive, responsible and healthier experience.

  9. This is by far the best blog post I have read so far. You combine modesty with critical thinking. Excellent job.

    I agree with Naveed Lalani. I think it may be a positive step to focus on and combine addictive behaviour with learning / health & well-being apps.

    The applications we already have are useful to a certain extent but pitfall us into a massive distraction zone. There has also been research into internet addiction linking with depression.

    In my opinion there needs to be less focus on the social digital world and more emphasis on our well-being as a whole.

    How we will overcome this problem is anyone’s guess though.

    Maybe we need to learn moderation techniques?

  10. Thank you for this post lead me here and I will be using this as a discussion prompt for my technology course for teaching/learning with pre-service teachers— many of the comments are well thought out and so helpful.

    I believe that educators can benefit with the addictive nature of some websites, for children who need to be drilled on new concepts/skills, but otherwise we need to think carefully about when Web2.0 is an enhancement, motivator, or way for kids to produce what they have learned. I think teachers who use technology in a classroom should clearly state a purpose and how the web helps reinforce or extend the learning.

    My favorite uses you clearly articulated- are when it saves me TIME! I love pinterest for searching for ideas that others have found valuable! But I must think through and admit when I’m searching to fill a void and when I have a purpose. I’d like to use my leisure time to read– and I love blogs- but I also have to carefully keep myself reading BOOKS as well to be a relevant and well educated person. Balance is key! I think this is a wonderful resource to ponder that and will enjoy in the future explore commenters blogs and thoughts even more!

  11. Carol Nicholson

    Thank u for this much needed discussion and wake up call. I love technology and have a son @ MIT, but addiction is not what we need for a better life. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. This discussion should preceded deciding what we will make with what greater good for society will it accomplish. Thank U!

  12. I know I’m not a scientific sampling, but I can definitely relate. My day has become more and more interrupt driven, which means I’m able to get less done and get increasingly cranky when people interrupt me with something actually relevant.

    More recently I’ve started turning Tiwtter off and only checking in 2-3 times throughout the work day rather than enabling the continuous stream. It’s helping, but I am still crankier than I used to be.

    Now excuse me while I go tweet this article… :-)

  13. There is a simple law of evolution even in this industry; one that if its not useful/popular then it will not survive. The fact that something survives proves a value. As long as one is generating value, it does not matter what the purpose of the promoters are. And beside every organization has people with different agendas. No agenda is corrupt or polluted if it drives honest valuation of the product at the end of the day. So to philosophize purist ideas to drive reason to build products isn’t something I agree with.

    There is no further analysis required. The article is over thinking it !