Curbing Addictive Platform Design

Binary numbers appear over a person's head as they use their mobile device
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock / by jiris

Addiction is everywhere: slot machines and lottery tickets can lead to gambling addiction, alcohol and psychoactive substances can lead to drug addiction, but an “addiction” many people worldwide might not be aware of is digital addiction. Many websites, apps, and digital platforms are designed to engage users on a regular basis. After all, app designers don’t want users to only use their service once and never again.

However, like with other addictions, although users have the ability to avoid temptations and be aware of their own behaviors and triggers, there shouldn’t be a sole pressure for users to overcome unhealthy habits on their own–designers should take it upon themselves to create websites, applications, and digital environments that don’t prey on human psychology just to increase their own traffic and revenue.

While designers should be held accountable for creating ethically-sound platforms, it’s still important to understand the concept of “digital addiction” and some of the tactics designers use to hook users into chronic engagement. After discussing these base concepts, this post will introduce solutions for designers to make their websites, apps, and platforms less demanding and, ultimately, less addicting.

What is “digital addiction”?

A woman uses her mobile device while laying in bed
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock / by Pixel-Shot

An article by Nielsen Norman Group (NGG) defines “digital addiction” as “anxiety and lack of control over the amount of time [users] spend online.” In fact, an article by Forbes builds upon digital addiction by stating disheartening facts about the state of technological dependence in today’s society:

  • Americans check their phone an average of 344 times per day (every 5.5 minutes on average)
  • Half of Americans believe they are digitally addicted
  • Americans on average spend 44 days on their phones per year

NGG has defined this behavior pattern as the Vortex, which is essentially a state of mind in which distractions from a main purpose or goal are created by “a series of unplanned interactions.”

Designers facilitate digital addiction

Two people's hands examine programming code
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock / by joyfotoliakid

These specific “unplanned interactions” are in fact intentional, and are discussed later in this post. It’s important to first understand exactly why these platforms hook users in, and it’s actually based on empirical psychological evidence.

Understanding the role of dopamine

Since so many people, at least in the United States, spend a large amount of their time on their devices, it makes sense that platform and website designers want to take advantage of the ever-growing digital landscape. Much like other addictive substances and activities, designers utilize tactics to prey upon the human tendency to become hooked on things that release dopamine. According to a piece by Lee Health on social media addiction, social media plays upon our brain’s pleasure system in the same way as drugs, sex, and alcohol.

“When a user gets a like, a retweet, an emoticon notification, the brain receives a flood of dopamine and sends it along reward pathways.”

Lee Health

Websites, apps, and other digital platforms don’t just magically or coincidentally elicit dopamine responses; designers are specifically responsible for facilitating environments in which users are sucked into the Vortex. According to NGG and Tristan Harris, an expert in the field of “technology hijacking”, below are the most common ways designers take advantage of human psychology to create engagement with and traffic to their platforms, otherwise known as engagement design or “Captology” (Computers as Persuasive Technologies).

12 tactics designers use to hook users into the Vortex

Binary numbers and streaks of light create a vortex-like effect
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock / by Blue Planet Studio

1. Notifications

Simply put, notifications can start the cycle of unintended interaction or interrupt other tasks. Sometimes notifications are important, sometimes they’re not, but it’s hard to tell because regardless of the notification, like Pavlov’s salivating dogs, we tend to react immediately when we hear notifications sound off. Similarly, like Schrodinger’s cat, we usually don’t know if a notification holds good or bad news, so ignoring them can create a sense of anxiety. Therefore, sites and platforms utilize this tactic to increase engagement; we can’t forget about a platform if they send us notifications every day or even every other hour.

2. Fear of missing out (FOMO)

The concept of FOMO means that users are afraid of missing out on new, exciting content. Users might decide to opt into email newsletters and push notifications rather than unsubscribing to them and visiting the websites on their own time.

3. Inconvenient choices

Similarly to the FOMO principle, websites might make it difficult for users to unsubscribe from newsletters and push notifications.

A list of Medium's notification options
Medium (the very website Harris’ article was published on) requires users to navigate a list of settings before finding an “All Email” on/off switch at the bottom of the page.

4. Infinite content/autoplay

Websites, apps, and platforms, namely social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit, feature endless scrolling to encourage a seemingly endless stream of engagement. Similarly, platforms like Netflix and YouTube feature autoplay, so when one video ends, the next one automatically begins, encouraging users to continually engage with the site.

Tumblr's endless scrolling option and a description of what it does
By default, Tumblr includes an “Endless Scrolling” option, which must be turned off to only allow a certain number of posts per page.

5. Scarcity principle

Because something being rare or hard to obtain implies desirability, businesses and websites include phrases like “Act now!” or “Supplies limited!” so users will impulsively engage with a product or service.

6. Foot-in-the-door

Some websites and platforms use phrases like, “Just one click away” as a promise that the information the user seeks is easy to attain. However, this first step is purposely made easy so the user will engage with the website, but the subsequent steps will require more actions and more attention to maintain user interaction.

7. Hide-the-milk

This term comes from the idea that grocery stores know the most commonly needed product is milk, so they purposefully design their stores so that the milk section is often in the back of the store. Therefore, users need to pass by every other product in the store just to reach what they initially needed, which exposes them to the possibility of buying more than they intended. Websites utilize a similar tactic in by hiding the most commonly desired information deep within their website to encourage users to engage with unrelated information and sink more time into the website.

8. Illusion of freedom

When users are presented with a list of options, this is usually not an exhaustive list, but many users might assume every single option they could possibly need is covered–this is most prominent in navigational menus. However, websites and apps rarely inform users of options not covered, which can influence a user’s decision or even outright alter the way they interact with a website. At the very least, non-exhaustive website design can lead to frustration and drive traffic away, but less aware users might not realize how their actions have been influenced by an illusion of choices.

9. Intermittent variable reward

Slot machines are designed to randomly pay out when a user inserts money; a gambler never knows when they’re going to win, but winning a random chance game produces dopamine and fosters a need to achieve that reward again. When we check our phone for the fifteenth time in an hour and do see a notification from a friend or find a funny video after hours of scrolling Instagram, we’ve “won the lottery” and are encouraged to repeat this behavior. Much like slot machines, newsfeed algorithms don’t place the exact content we want to see at the top because there would be no need to scroll; if we won every time we gambled, it wouldn’t be a gamble.

10. Social approval

Social media sites are designed to encourage social approval behaviors. An example from Harris is when a user changes their Facebook profile picture, that post is usually placed at the top of other users’ newsfeeds and for a longer period of time than other posts. Every like and comment creates a reward, and so we’re encouraged to interact with the site even more, such as by changing our profile pictures more often than we otherwise would without the concept of algorithms favoring certain content.

11. Reciprocity

This is the notion of “I follow you and you follow me.” Although this social obligation is the same as a “Thank you/You’re welcome” exchange, sites take advantage of this daily interaction.

Facebook's "People You May Know" interface with personal information censored
“People You May Know” appears multiple times throughout a Facebook newsfeed, offering a one-click option to add a friend.

For example, Facebook often provides a list of Suggested Friends, and many users might simply click the “Add Friend” button without thinking. However, the other person is now faced with a social obligation when Facebook sends them an external email notification; they might not have had any intention to visit Facebook before, but once they respond to the obligation to add their friend back, they’re interacting with Facebook.

12. Instant interruption vs. respectful delivery

Unless a user manually alters their push notification settings, notifications often interrupt users at any given time. The default settings for most apps allow notifications to make a sound and appear as a banner across the top of the screen, interrupting what users are doing and grabbing their attention. These invasive notifications are often the ones that are responded to immediately.

Solving digital addiction is on designers, not users

Contrary to many sources, NGG stated the term “addiction” holds a negative connotation and implies the users are at fault for their own lack of control. This phrasing tends to remove blame from designers and positions users themselves as being solely responsible for becoming aware of their own behaviors and taking steps to overcome the real tactics used by designers to increase engagement. Even sites like Forbes and Lee Health place solutions upon the backs of users, rather than calling upon designers to alter the structure of their website’s engagement strategies. Instead, NGG refers to “digital addiction” and “the Vortex” as a “user-behavior pattern”.

While some place the responsibility of navigating deceptively predatory website design on the backs of users, NGG and the Center for Humane Technology argue for platform changes, which places responsibility more on the backs of those who have used tactics which take advantage of the human tendency towards addiction.

Below are some ways web designers can redesign their websites so they are more ethically sound and less predatory in terms of user-behavior patterns.

5 simple ways to restructure websites to be less “addictive”

A designer in front of a computer glances up at a sketched website planning storyboard
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock / by olly

1. Think about wording and writing style

Wording that implies urgency, scarcity, or an air of “missing out” plays upon our human instincts to be a part of things and to not miss out on something. Avoiding phrases like, “Act now!” or “For a limited time only!” can be a step in the right direction.

2. Disable infinite scrolling and autoplay by default

Currently, many websites require these features to be disabled manually, and many users might not be savvy enough to explore settings in detail. By placing a limit on how much a user can scroll or only allowing one video to play at a time, users might be less encouraged to sink their time into these sites.

3. Provide content on the surface rather than burying it

To avoid “foot-in-the-door” and “hide-the-milk” tactics, websites should be designed to make what the user’s looking for accessible without an unnecessary amount of clicks; in general, users should not have to click through five portals to get to a feature that only requires one or two clicks.

4. Offer every possible choice a user would need (within reason)

While a website that offers too little choices limits a user’s options and might influence their purpose in visiting a website or using an app, too many choices might be equally detrimental. Designs should focus on including ways to access all of a user’s possible questions and purposes, but this should be done so in a concise way by utilizing navigational headings and possibly site maps for more advanced users.

5. Display content to avoid lottery-like reward systems

Newsfeed and notification algorithms are often designed like slot machines, but doing so creates a very real sense of addiction where users may dump too much of their time and energy (and sometimes money!) into a website or app. Designing newsfeeds that cater more to a user’s desires will probably provide less opportunity to showcase advertisements and related content, but doing so will help users feel less trapped in the Vortex. Similarly, when users install an app or sign up on a website, they should be given clear options for how often (if at all) they want push notification alerts and how they would like the notifications to appear.

Conclusion: change the design, not the person

A web designer happily explores visual designs at their computer station
Photo licensed via Adobe Stock / by WavebreakMediaMicro

Awareness begins within the design, not with users. By rethinking the way we create websites and apps to interact with users, we can create more organic user experiences without taking advantage of human psychology. Website designers hold the power to help or hurt, and until there’s an organized system of governance like the Food and Drug Administration for website and app design, it’s up to one’s own ethics and moral compass to provide users with safe, genuine platform experiences.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Hello, Mark! Your post was very informative on the topic of the purposeful addictiveness of platforms. Your explanations are in-depth and give vivid information on how dopamine and platform design play a part in users’ inability to separate from the digital world. Your visuals are strong, and really bring to life ideas like inconvenient choices, infinite content, and reciprocity. In addition, I enjoyed your ability to supply recommendations for curving these addictive behaviors, and how it relies on designers, not users. Your solutions dive into the emotional responses that trigger these dopamine-increasing emotions and offer well-thought-out ways to help diminish them. Such as word choice, readily available info, and clear notification settings. An additional article that I found from my research that supports this post is one by Jefferson Health on the addictiveness of social media for teens. It goes further to recommend actions parents can take to make teens’ relationships with platforms safer. As an advertising major a lot of my major is focused on social media, so this topic is very important for my career. Knowing the downsides of the digital world is key to being able to attempt to advertise safely online without causing mental harm. Overall, well down on your post!

    Link: https://www.jeffersonhealth.org/your-health/living-well/the-addictiveness-of-social-media-how-teens-get-hooked

  2. Hi Mark! As someone who frequently falls victim to addictive web tactics like the ones you lay out in your article, I appreciate being able to see all of this information in one place and being able to put names to some of the strategies I notice while spending time online. The screenshots you provide for “inconvenient choices,” “infinite content/autoplay,” and “reciprocity” help me visualize the concepts you discuss in your post, and they also help me to identify ways to work around these strategies as I consume internet media.

    The “scarcity” strategy you mention reminds me of an article I read about Taylor Swift fans accusing her of exploiting them by releasing multiple special editions of her albums back to back with limited amounts of time to buy each of the special editions. Swift utilizes social media to market her albums and merchandise, and frequently posts that certain products are available for a limited time, creating a scarcity mindset that causes fans to impulsively buy the items for fear of missing out. https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/stephaniesoteriou/taylor-swift-accused-money-grabbing-shameless-vinyls

  3. Mark, your post was very informative! Addiction to technology is a common conversation these days, and especially with platforms like TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram. Your post had very effective headers, images, and offset quotes that broke up the text well and kept the post from feeling long. You also clearly explained the role of dopamine in addiction, and I appreciated that you not only listed the common ways that websites and apps create addictions, but also how to avoid them in design. I found an interesting article that went in depth on the cycles that addictive apps create, and some of the side effects of addictions to phones, which include increased feelings of depression and anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. The article also discusses ways that we as consumers can mitigate addictive behaviors, such as setting app limits, disabling notifications, and seeking professional help if it becomes a serious problem.
    Article Link:
    https://www.therapyhub.eu/the-addictive-nature-of-mobile-apps-a-dip-into-psychological-research/#:~:text=The%20Hook%20Model%20and%20Mobile%20App%20Addiction,-To%20understand%20the&text=Eyal%20suggests%20that%20successful%20apps,can%20foster%20compulsive%20app%20usage.

  4. Hi Mark! I really liked your blog post this week. The concept of digital addiction being caused by web-designers is a really interesting perspective, and you did a good job of organizing your post in order to explain it well. Particularly, your use of lists for the ways designers hook users in and ways to make websites less addictive were very smart ways to organize those ideas. I was especially interested in how notifications can be used to hook users. I know from my experience that I’m always drawn toward my phone whenever I hear it go off, no matter what I’m doing or what ends up being on there. It is an effective way to gain user’s attention, and it is interesting to know that it is a very deliberate choice from web designers. I found a post that talks about how notifications are designed to be addictive, and how to correct this both from the user and designer perspective. Overall, great post!
    Link: https://blog.rescuetime.com/why-addicted-to-notifications/

  5. Hi Mark! I’m someone who’s extremely susceptible to a lot of the tactics you listed, and reading this blog post has made me more self-aware overall, so I think all of the information you provide is super valuable. I also appreciate the way you had so many different tactics included and I enjoyed your use of visuals within the blog post, along with the fact that all of the visuals used were from different platforms, further proving the point that this is evident in so many places online. I also never thought about the fact that a lot of the aspects of digital addiction are done on purpose to get people to keep coming back to whatever site it is they’re addicted to. The article I found talks about people being addicted to technology as a whole, and kind of talks about the entirety of tech addictions that have been faced during the digital age, and following the pandemic, but not going into as much detail and instead approaching some of the reasons for digital addiction with a much broader approach. Link: https://www.rutgers.edu/news/are-you-addicted-technology

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