UX and Addictive Devices: Devices for the Humans Not Humans for the Devices

Genevieve Fitch

Have you ever picked up your phone with the intention of checking your email, but gotten distracted by a Snapchat from your best friend? Then, once you’ve answered them, had a notification from instagram saying someone liked your recent picture pop up? It wouldn’t hurt to check that like count and get a bit of internet validation, but just when you close out of snapchat you see the little red circle in the corner of your messages app. You have 16 unread texts and they’re all from the same group chat making plans for the upcoming weekend. The next thing you know, half an hour has gone by and you can’t even remember why you went on your phone in the first place. With the rise of social media and the expanding reach of our cell phones, it has become nearly impossible to unplug from the online world around us. This is because of a phenomenon called The Vortex.

The Vortex

The Vortex is a name given to the experience of falling down an irreversible rabbit hole caused by the chain of distractions present in your smartphone. The biggest trigger causing a user to fall down the vortex is a simple notification.


Notifications were initially utilized in Captology (Computers as Persuasive Technologies) to sell a product. It didn’t take long to transition into a system of trading time for profit. Simply put, the more time a user spends on one mode of social media, the more successful that platform becomes. 

In order to pull a users attention to a specific social media platform over another, CRM (Customer Relationship Management) focused on five main triggers to capture and keep a user’s attention called the persuasive design.

  • FOMO (Fear of Missing Out): A tactic used widely by Snapchat, FOMO targets the psychological fear and anxiety associated with not being directly involved and in the moment with other peers. This is also perpetuated with the narrative surrounding “leaving someone on read.” The faster a user can get to snapchat and engage with other users, the more likely they are to engage in a back and forth dialogue with no lapse in time.
  • Infinite Content and Autoplay: One word, TikTok. By removing any sort of cap on the amount of content a user can access in one sitting, TikTok has opened a sort of vortex of their own in which users can scroll aimlessly for hours unconsciously absorbing ads from big businesses, brand deals, movies and TV shows, or even small businesses with their own platforms. 
  • Scarcity Principle: Have you ever fallen victim to the “Only 100 ever made” marketing tactic used primarily in retail to sell what society has deemed to be a luxury product? This tactic is used to express the urgency of purchasing a product. It is largely seen in phrases like “while supplies last”, “only 1 left”, and “6 others have this product in their cart.” Amazon Prime is guilty of the Scarcity Principle by offering next day delivery “if you order in the next 3 hours.” 
  • Foot-in-the-door: Popular among email subscriptions and newsletters, the foot-in-the-door approach to CRM aims at making things as quick and easy at just the touch of a button. But of course, the little Subscribe button is always followed by a much more in depth “while I have you here” information dump.
  • Hide-the-milk tactic: By making the user’s target product more difficult to find, you can increase the amount of time a user spends on your site all the while advertising other options to them on their way. The popular professional development media platform, LinkedIn, uses this tactic by limiting their reach to those with more (in both quantity and quality) connections. One minute you’re trying to connect with a prospective employer on LinkedIn, and the next you’re congratulating their dog’s kennel’s owner’s daughter on her new internship at Google and you still haven’t made enough mutual connections to even see your prospective employer’s page. 

Avoiding the Vortex

While avoiding the vortex completely is nearly impossible with today’s technology and social media networks, there are still many ways for the users themselves to limit their exposure to the vortex.

Many different social media platforms have started to include time limits on their apps that a user can set to let them know how much time they have spent on a single app in a day. On top of that, beginning with iOS 12, a new feature to the iPhone came out where users can set time limits on specific apps. Say you wanted to limit yourself to only going on TikTok for a total of 30 minutes in a day, once you reach that point, the app will notify you that your time for TikTok is up and will close the app for you. After that point, any attempt to open the app will cause it to open a blank screen and prompt you to type in your phones password. This gives users an extra beat in between impulsively opening social media and falling back into the vortex.

User’s reported the majority of their wasted time to be due to TikTok, one even noting “I can spend an hour at a time on TikTok just watching funny videos.” 

Avoiding the vortex isn’t just about time management. Stress and anxiety caused by a lack of time management can be largely linked to the vortex. Users also reported feeling shame and guilt after wasting excessive amounts of time on social media.

The Psychology of the User Experience

Usability is about making sure a website fits the needs of a human–not the other way around.

When UX designers use psychological tactics to manipulate users into an inescapable vortex, they are not creating websites to fit the needs of humans. Businesses who thrive online based on gaining and keeping users attention for extended periods of time are directly feeding into the negative psychological effects their users experience because of their product. 

In designing your product, you must take into account user experience. Does your product take away from a user’s ability to continue their daily life? Does it negatively contribute to the vortex? How long do your user’s spend viewing your product at a time, and is this healthy? 

Plenty of business owners and user experience designers struggles with the balance of what’s good for business and what’s good for the user. When designing your user experience for your product, it is important to keep three things in mind: avoiding the vortex, the psychology of your user, and designing a website to fit the needs of your user—not the other way around.

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. Hi Ginny! I really like this blog topic and the information you provided because this “vortex” phenomenon is something that I do struggle with. Especially with me going into a field where running social media will be part of my job, it is a bit harder to have a healthy relationship with it when I need to use it for work but also still want to use it during my personal time as well. I like how you brought up setting time limits for each app and that’s super beneficial that it’s actually already a feature that Apple provides for its users. I found this article that also talks about strategies to not get sucked in by the vortex: https://mindaidtherapists.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/the-social-media-vortex-how-to-not-get-sucked-into-it/

  2. Hi Ginny, this was a super interesting blog post! The vortex is something we all struggle with in this day and age of modern technology, and I appreciated reading the specifics about it. The hide the milk tactic was super interesting to me because that’s something I didn’t know websites did. Now I can definitely remember times when I’ve been distracted on a website by new products popping up while trying to search for what I really wanted. This article discusses being sucked into the social media vortex, how to escape it, and it’s relation to depression and anxiety especially in teenagers: https://healthy-magazines.com/how-to-get-out-of-the-social-media-vortex-of-sadness/

  3. Hey Ginny, I like your blog. The introduction really stands out to me because it is very relatable. I have definitely gone through a loop of opening different social media platforms which results in me spending too much time on social media. This helped pique my interest for the remainder of the blog because I knew the topic was something that directly affected me. I also like that you connected it to website design and the end of the blog. This was also the first time that I had ever heard about the LinkedIn Vortex. I found an article that helped explained how to be productive on LinkedIn without falling into the vortex: https://spencerxsmith.com/6-tips-for-using-linkedin-for-business-without-getting-sucked-into-the-social-media-vortex/.

  4. Hi Ginny, I really enjoyed reading your article, and I found myself nodding in agreement to a lot of the points being made. The intro is extremely relatable, especially for people like me who get easily distracted and/or experience ADHD symptoms. I often will be working on something then get on my phone to search for something, only to be distracted by WhatsApp or Instagram and forget what I had even gotten on my phone for in the first place. Sometimes I definitely fall into a deep rabbit hole when I spend too much time on Instagram, because one post often leads to another, until it’s suddenly 2am and I’ve wasted the past few hours looking at posts instead of sleeping. I actually didn’t even know about the LinkedIn vortex. Whenever I use LinkedIn, it’s just to update my profile and maybe look at a few other pages. The platform just isn’t that attractive to me, and I only use it because I have to, as having a LinkedIn profile with connections is becoming more and more of a necessity (and I hate it).
    I actually didn’t know about the optional time limits either (I’m not sure if that’s just an Apple thing), and while I think it’s probably beneficial to a lot of people, it would probably cause me anxiety because I would feel more pressured to do everything quickly, and if I was booted out in the middle of a deep conversation, that would be bad, lol. Anyway, your article was very informative, thank you!

  5. Hi Ginny!
    Your blog was incredible! I didn’t know there was a name for that feeling of getting sucked into your phone/social media. I think a lot of the older generations blame the younger kids for getting addicted to our phones when in reality its our culture and society that has caused us to feel this way. I often find myself scrolling on TikTok and thinking, “Last video,” but then scroll on to the endless timeline of videos. With TikTok there is no “Last one”. Same thing with Snapchat, the concepts of the “24 Hour Stories” or “Leaving people on delivered” have caused us to not want to leave the app a lone. The noise that Snapchat makes when you receive a notification is so addictive it’s near impossible to ignore it. I’ve found this article about learning online and how not to get distracted while doing so. Although we are nearly past the point of remote learning, these tips still hold true for working online in general. https://www.vu.edu.au/about-vu/news-events/study-space/6-ways-to-avoid-social-media-distraction-while-learning-online

  6. Hi Ginny! What a great blog post. This topic is so relevant to most people as we can find ourselves on our smartphones for hours and hours a day. I have never heard the term vortex to describe this, but I am now glad that I have that in my vocabulary to describe what happens to me on a day-to-day basis. I liked how you were able to define tactics that companies use to prey on our need for validation and our need to feel included. I know that FOMO will keep me locked into my phone because I never want to miss a group text. For those who will have social media incorporated into their jobs, here is a job to help manage mental health and separation from social media.

  7. Hi Ginny! This is a fantastic blog post to read about, and one that I can kind of relate to. The vortex is incidentally something that I myself have found myself falling into on several occasions with certain websites — though primarily with Youtube than any of the sites mentioned up above. I found the particular part about Notifications and how into detail you go about the way websites and apps draw your attention to be the most interesting part for me. I’ve especially heard of FOMO before, though largely in the context of video games and microtransactions in them (I’m not gonna go into detail here about those). Overall, I found this post really insightful!

  8. Hi Ginny,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post this week! I found the lines “Usability is about making sure a website fits the needs of a human–not the other way around….When UX designers use psychological tactics to manipulate users into an inescapable vortex, they are not creating websites to fit the needs of humans” to be especially valuable because you effectively make a connection between the vortex and user experience by pointing out that in designing our product, we should consider if it negatively contributes to the vortex. It was also especially effective that you explained the vortex from the perception of the user (us) first, then introduced the significance of the vortex for those creating products for users (also us). I found this article that discusses the physiology of the brain in relation to users feeling trapped in their devices.

  9. I really enjoyed your article. I feel like I frequently experienced falling down into the social media vortex before I started deleting apps, where I would scroll for an hour without any feelings of enjoyment or happiness. I feel like the idea that designers need to create for humans, and not in order to use humans, is important. While it’s tempting to have users stay on your website for as long as possible, it’s not healthy. The article I’m linking has tips for users to utilize social media in a way that won’t be harmful, and it may benefit website creators to know of these as well.


  10. One thing that stuck out to me about your post was the section about the design of these websites that use psychological tactics to manipulate users. You mention that by pulling their user into a vortex, they aren’t creating sites that fit the human needs of their users. With that observation comes a larger issue – since the content of these sites is non-essential for human life (in the sense that things like daily life won’t collapse if they aren’t used), there is almost no external regulation and no expectation that the site be designed with users’ wellness in mind. These sites only thrive because they capture and keep users attention, so the people making money from the sites have no incentive to redesign and stop feeding into the negative psychological effects their users experience. Since the majority of sites functioning like this are entertainment-focused, the issue then becomes a moral/ethical one: should there be moderation/rules/laws about the design of entertainment websites, or is that somehow limiting the freedoms of the site owners and users (even if rules are made with the users’ best interests in mind)? I actually recently read an article that I found relevant to this situation: https://medium.com/@qewrtyuiop147/infinite-scroll-addictive-software-from-psychological-manipulation-29d4ec7ca748

  11. Hi Ginny,

    I really enjoyed your blog post! Your first paragraph really pulled me in as a reader by creating a picture of the type of scenario that relates to your topic. This topic is super relatable because I personally get very distracted by my phone. Sometimes I’ll be studying and then all of a sudden I receive a Snapchat notification and immediately have to check it. And then my train of thought gets interrupted. The concept of FOMO that you discussed in your blog is definitely something I feel on a daily basis which is why I feel such a pull to social media. Here is an article I found that addresses the connection between FOMO and social media addiction

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