Navigating the fine line between captivation and manipulation
Beep, beep, beep. You wake up to your alarm and while silencing it, you notice the logo of your favorite social media app on your phone and eagerly open it. There‘s a cute dog video that brings a smile to your face. You continue scrolling and come across a viral fail video of an Indian taxi driver with millions of likes. It seems to be a hit with everyone. The next video has very few likes, and after a few seconds of nothing interesting, you swipe it away. As you scroll deeper and deeper, your excitement begins to fade. What was supposed to be an easy way out of bed turns into yet another one of those daily nightmares.
Lately, addictive digital products have come to consume more and more of our daily routine. And as a designer, I can‘t help but question:
How do designers get away with creating addictive experiences so easily, and who bears the responsibility?
The ethics of designing addictive digital experiences is a hotly debated topic in the design community. On one hand, some argue that designers should create engaging and captivating experiences that keep users coming back for more. Further adding that addiction is simply a by-product of effective design, and it is ultimately up to users to manage their own screen time and digital habits. Opponents of this argue that designers are responsible for all consequences of their designs and should therefore strive to design safe products. Some even say that no matter how unethical a design is, its author will always find a reasonable excuse for it such as: “If I have not done it others would have”. While such an excuse might seem cynical to some, in a corporate setting where designers are just numbers, it suddenly becomes more relevant. Since the public debates seem to have resulted in a viewpoint stalemate, let‘s look at where the need for addictive design comes from.
Capitalism is a system where demand is met with supply. Valuing profit and growth, it often incentivizes designers and companies to prioritize user retention above all else. As designers, we find ourselves at a crossroads, seeking to create value for both users and companies. However, this is where the problem lies. The capitalist model, not being user-centered, prioritizes profit and growth as indicators of success over human well-being, naively assuming that users know what they want and need to “be well”. To overcome the pressure to create addictive products,
we need a model where designing for company value alligns with designing for user value.
While designers should be responsible for all implications of their designs this alone won’t be enough to solve the issue. Addressing the systemic problem is the ultimate solution. Nonetheless, I‘d like to introduce a few models that provide alternative approaches.
Some business models play a role in pressuring designers to create addictive experiences. Such business models that value user addiction are ethically problematic and require re-evaluation. It’s worth noting that competitive pressures often hinder companies from deviating from such models, highlighting the need for systemic change. However, by thinking innovatively and embracing user-centric and participatory design practices, designers can explore alternative models that value user well-being and safety.
Another possibility worth considering is to “design for empowerment”. This approach emphasizes empowering the user. In practice, this fosters user autonomy by providing control, and the ability to personalize and switch off. By empowering users to take control of their digital experiences and offering tools for self-improvement and personal growth, designers can counterbalance the negative impacts of addictive design aspects.
When systemic changes aren‘t possible, addressing the issue from the user side can be effective. By raising awareness about harmful methods, users can learn to prioritize healthy design, forcing companies to rethink their products. Understanding the psychological aspects behind addictive digital experiences empowers users to reclaim control over their digital consumption.
A conducted study identified the widespread use of manipulative design methods in the case of Instagram. Remember the story from the beginning? Within that short paragraph, you can find at least 10 manipulative methods. The following paragraph describes them in greater detail.
The dopamine feedback loop, crucial to addiction, drives us to seek more by releasing dopamine in our brains whenever we think of pleasure, followed by intense craving. Psychological priming influences our thoughts and behaviors by exposing us to certain stimuli, shaping our preferences, and making us more susceptible to targeted messaging. Instant gratification takes advantage of our impulsive nature, fuelling the desire for immediate satisfaction. Social validation drives our need for approval from others. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is often artificially evoked creating a subconscious fear of being left out. The variable rewards method triggers a sense of anticipation and excitement, driving us to seek more. Positive reinforcement strengthens our habits by repeatedly rewarding desired behaviors. Emotional contagion spreads and intensifies our feelings, taking advantage of our tendency to mimic others‘ emotions. Artificial social connection satisfies our need for belonging, while passive consumption techniques keep us hooked without needing to think.
While designers are often seen as influential thinkers, the systemic rules can limit their decision-making freedom, giving rise to ethical concerns. Therefore, as designers, it is crucial for us to continually ask ourselves: Are we prioritizing ethical design principles over profit? And as consumers, it‘s essential to reflect: Are we truly in control of our consumption choices, or are we being manipulated?