Customer engagement vs digital addiction
The risk of designing habit-forming products
Consumer-facing web companies often gauge their service’s popularity by measuring user engagement. The more time people spend on an app, the more likely that app is to sell ads. Google and Facebook are the current kings of digital engagement.
- 19% of that time is spent on Facebook
- 12% of that time is spent on messaging / social / email
Wow, that’s a lot of customer engagement.
A new wave of social apps are competing for that mindshare. Slack, Instagram, and Snapchat, to name a few. Our lives are inundated with addictive apps. Community managers support user communities, doing whatever they can to encourage their users to binge on the platform. Anything to make their app a big hit.
Top game designers Amy Jo Kim and UX experience experts Nir Eyal focus on designing the next big hit. They help startups design habit-forming software experiences. The goal, per Amy Jo, is to “create repeatable, pleasurable activities that satisfy an internal urge or need.”
At a recent talk on Game Design and user engagement Amy Jo showed the effectiveness of an engagement trigger employed by Snapchat. It was chilling to watch Amy Jo admire the effectiveness of the software experience: “it’s like crack.”
Don’t get me wrong, Amy Jo and Nir Eyal are masters at what they do. They’ve dissected the viral loop, creating applicable frameworks that startups can employ to make their own products more engaging.
But I’m surprised the software design community is still hellbent on designing engaging apps — a full decade after Facebook’s viral loop became well understood, and as many as 15 years since addictive Blackberry ie “Crackberry” devices became a big hit.
Software developers may not have fully come to terms with the consequence of their addictive designs. Are they aware that they may be doing harm? Not likely. But the software business is starting to sound like the drug business. Technology has become “irresistible,” according to social scientist Adam Alter
“The implications are huge. For example, behavioral addiction has the capacity to damage relationships between friends and romantic partners (by replacing face-to-face interactions with impoverished online interactions), to make people less healthy by encouraging them to exercise too seldom (by making screens more attractive) and sometimes too often (by inducing them to overexercise with the aid of fitness watches that encourage activity escalation), and by encouraging them to overspend on experiences like in-app game purchases and online shopping. In time, most of us will own virtual reality goggles, and the temptation to spend time in an idealized virtual world will almost always trump the temptation of living in the imperfect offline world. Why have a potentially boring conversation with a real person when you can spend time in a virtual world doing exactly what you’d like to be doing, from playing games to sitting on a beach in Spain to having virtual sex?”
Per a tweet from Y-Combinator’s Sam Altman: “Digital addiction is going to be one of the great mental health crises of our time.” Awareness of digital addiction is rising.
When software designers come to terms with the consequence of creating addictive products, the question is what should they do about it? Make their software suck? Unlikely. What does a drug dealer do once they realize their product has become destructive?
Ice cream is delicious. Too much ice cream can make us obese. Obesity can cause health problems and even death. But are ice cream makers to blame?
Entrepreneurs may start to shift gears and focus on the value they provide to users, rather than optimizing for engagement. There may be better ways to measure customer value beyond engagement. Technology can save us time and do work for us, for example. Technology doesn’t always have to suck up our time.
Amazon Alexa could be a great example. Certainly Alexa is not meant for hours and hours of user engagement per day. Instead, it’s there whenever you need it. Yes, we depend on Alexa, but just for a few random questions per day. We don’t binge on Alexa like we binge on apps like Pinterest and Netflix.
The solution to digital addiction will not come from software. The fix for app addiction won’t be a monitoring app that limits your usage. Smoking addiction wasn’t cured by Marlboro Lites, it was curbed from 40%-11% over decades by health awareness and regulation.
Or maybe the solution to addictive UI is anti-UI, like the Light Phone, “designed to be used as little as possible.”
We are already seeing some signs of a backlash to technology and the popularity of offline solutions like digital detox camps. But for the software designers who aspire to build the next Slack, Snapchat or Kickstarter, the first step may be to recognize that we are part of the problem.
We want people to love our products, but we don’t want anyone to get hurt.