Before we dive deep into the reasons that make some apps so addictive, you may want to check if you are addicted to some apps. Addiction is a condition in which a person repeatedly does a certain activity or uses a certain substance, even though that person is aware that is harmful. The addiction brings so much joy and excitement that the person cannot resist. Take a look at your situation:
- Would you become anxious when you do not have access to certain apps?
- Have you ever felt that your app usage has affected negatively on your work performance or the relationship with your family?
- Finally, have you tried to cut down the time you spent on some apps, but failed?
The questions above do not represent any medical screening or diagnosis but if you ever feel that an app is negatively affecting your life, but you cannot quit it, this is an obvious sign that you need to find a solution that helps you gain back your life.
What makes some apps so addictive?
For businesses, more users are addicted to the app, the better. Think about it, if their users spend more time on the app, comment on more posts, react to more stories and message each other more often, it means better user engagement. Better user engagement represents the app’s popularity and is a bargaining chip with the advertisers and investors. Facebook, for example, one of their major income is from advertising. If their users do not use Facebook that often, who would use Facebook as a marketing channel? To make their users come back for more, they have made their design so irresistible that we are all glued to the screen.
1. Algorithm — makes you have the urge to stay connected
Facebook has released an algorithm update earlier this year. This update prioritises the posts that generate more interactions and comments — especially those from friends and family. This update matches Facebook’s mission — bring the world closer together. It doesn’t sound anything wrong with it but when an app is continuously showing you the updates from your friends and family, it’s hard to not to check it, for example, you want to know how your best friend’s date night went or what your mom did last weekend. If Facebook prioritises the posts from publishers — would you check it every hour?
In addition to the urge to check the updates from your connections, the peer pressure to post regular updates is also a cause of the addiction. This is particularly common among teenagers. When everyone in your class takes a snapshot of their lunch and shares it on Facebook, it’s hard to resist not joining the club.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said “a responsibility to make sure our services aren’t just fun to use, but also good for people’s well-being” — if the new algorithm encourages staying connected constantly, how healthy is that?
2. Push notifications — the non-stop temptation
Push services is invented by Research In Motion, the company behind Blackberry. Push services are used in Blackberry to notify the user when there’s a new email — this sort of notifications is particularly important to bankers, lawyers and businessmen since they travel a lot for business, Blackberry’s target customers. It definitely improves the user experience. Nowadays, push notification becomes a must-have feature in all the apps. You can see them everywhere: Instagram, Facebook, Linkedin, Taxi order app and many more. These notifications lure you to check them out right away as you don’t want to miss anything important. However, oftentimes, those messages are not urgent and do not require immediate attention. The app push notification has strayed away from the original purpose, it’s less about improving user experience — the users won’t miss any important message or email, it’s more about building a temptation that the users cannot resist and businesses monetarize their app by using our weakness.
Facebook and Instagram have recently launched a new feature, an activity dashboard to let their users monitor their app usage. The users can limit the app notifications in a better way, mute push notification and receive a reminder when the usage exceeds the preset limit. The intention behind this is extremely great, but the question is: how much time spent on the app is too much? Is there any benchmark or reference?
3. Design — silently causes the obsession
The goal of UI and UX design is to make the app look good, help the users solve their problem and make the problem-solving process enjoyable. However, some UX design seems to help improve the user experience but silently makes the app addictive. If you have ever used Netflix, you would notice that at the end of each series episode, the next episode would play automatically and this encourages binge-watching TV series. The original idea of this design is to make entertainment frictionless — their subscribers do not need to go back one step to select another episode, all they need to do is to sit back and enjoy. A 12 episodes TV series runs for 3 months on TV but with the autoplay feature, you can easily finish the whole series in 12 hours. That’s somewhat ok if you are on holiday but if you have a day job and binge watch TV series at night — do you think you have the energy to perform well in your job the next day?
4. Gamification — keeps you motivated or addicted?
Fitbit transforms boring fitness trackers to something stylish and trendy. Their fitness tracker can monitor your heart rate and steps count and you can sync your tracker data with their app. Combining with your daily calories and fluid consumption, you can assess your overall health and fitness. The whole idea is pretty innocent, it helps you keep in shape. If you have ever tried to lose weight, you would understand it is not easy to stay motivated. Unless you have a weight loss buddy to remind you to work out every day, it’s quite likely you would give up halfway.
Fitbit makes fitness tracking more fun by adding gamification to their product. Gamification is incorporating gaming elements in an app or other products to make the whole goal-reaching process more fun and engaging. When you reach a goal that you set, your Fitbit tracker screen would show a firework animation to celebrate your achievement. How does gamification make an app addictive? If the users consider reaching their goal is the highlight of their day and if their daily life is affected negatively because the goal in their app becomes the topmost priority — this is an addiction. For instance, to record more steps, you walk to an important meeting or interview instead of taking the public transport and you end up late and sweaty.
App addiction, whose fault?
App addiction, to some degree, the users have the responsibility. At the same time, tech companies should try to avoid using certain design and features to lower the chance of addiction. They pay a lot of attention to user experience design, they want to make the whole user experience seamless, enjoyable and unforgettable. However, when the products offer something that is more than just solving a problem, it could make the users addictive. Businesses need to find the balance between providing a good user experience and overly engaging their users. Some addictive features, for instance, the next episode autoplay on Netflix may be unnecessary. A simple pop up asking if the users want to watch the next episode can make the users pause and think — is it time to take a break?
Let’s look at another example: Instagram. Instagram is a photo sharing app that has over 800 million users. Its users can take a snapshot using the app camera and share it with their followers. What makes Instagram so addictive is that the app itself also has a number of filters that the users can apply to their images to make them look good — without having any photo editing knowledge or access to expensive photo editing suite. From taking the image, editing it to sharing it to the world takes no more than a few minutes, even a 7 years old child can do it. If Instagram is just a photo sharing app, only sharing and nothing more, this would make the app a bit less addictive but would still keep the original idea of Instagram.
App addiction is a plague that has no vaccine that can prevent us from getting sick. Tech companies need to take the responsibility to design better products that help us solve a problem but at the same time keep our mental well-being in mind. Otherwise, the product solves a problem but creates a bigger problem in the future. You can say that it is a business but should profit always come first?