You pick up your phone to send a text to your friend. On your lock screen, you see a Facebook notification that someone liked your post, so you open the app. While scrolling in your Facebook news feed, you see an ad for your favorite shoe brand. It’s running a sale, and you do need a new pair of gym shoes! Fifteen minutes later, you’re on your bank’s website checking your balance, and you’ve completely forgotten to text your friend.

The Vortex

Does that scenario sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone. In our studies for the Life Online project, many participants had similar experiences: they were interacting with a site or an app with goal in mind, but got distracted by other “temptations” in the online world. We call this phenomenon “the Vortex,” borrowing one of our participants’ own language.

The Vortex is a user-behavior pattern that begins with a single intentional interaction followed by a series of unplanned interactions. This unplanned chain of interactions creates a sense of being “pulled” deeper into the digital space, making the user out of control.

The phenomenon we describe here has a significant relationship to the concept commonly referred to as “digital addiction.” That language is inherently problematic, as it implies some sort of moral failing or weakness. It conflicts with the spirit of user-centered design — shaping products to serve humans, rather than changing humans to use a product. We define the Vortex as a user-behavior pattern, rather than a mental disorder.

What Causes the Vortex?


Device notifications are one the biggest culprits contributing to the Vortex. Whether they initially draw you into your device or interrupt you during another digital task, notifications are very often involved in Vortex-related feelings.

Notifications have benefits and drawbacks. They keep you informed of new events (which can be helpful and convenient), but they also interrupt your current task without any awareness of its importance. One participant in our Raleigh study was repeatedly pulled away from her activities by notifications from her phone. She told us, “I got distracted; my phone offers brief interjections that distract me.”

We’ve been conditioned to react swiftly to notifications for the potential emotional payoff. Is it a response to an email? A like? A comment? A sweet deal? Some report even feeling anxiety when they have unchecked notifications, “One of the things I do every morning when I wake up is clear all of my notifications,” said one participant. “Not only do I want to see what people have been saying, but I also hate the little red numbers on my home screen. I want it to be notification free at all times.”

Social media notifications, in particular, contribute to users getting sucked into the Vortex. In our US diary study, 25% of multitasking and task-switching entries (where users moved back and forth between activities) involved at least one social-media channel, suggesting that people engage with social media when they should be or are doing other tasks.

Some participants were able to ignore personal notifications while they worked or needed to focus on another activity:

  • A participant in our Kansas City study placed her phone upside down nearby on her desk while working. Though it continued to chime while she worked she said, “Personal phone notifications don’t bother me; I feel okay ignoring them.”
  • Others tried muting notifications while they needed to focus on other activities.
  • One participant in our Shanghai study turned off the data to his phone when too many distracting messages started coming in.

In our field research, some users alternated between periods of focus on a single activity (while ignoring notifications) and breaks from that activity. During these breaks, they switched attention to their personal . In our Raleigh field study, one participant was working from home on her work laptop. She would spend 10-30 minutes at a time focused on a work task, and then would pick up her phone to respond to the notifications she’d missed during that time.

Even those who are able to ignore notifications for a while get easily sucked into the Vortex once they do pick up their phones and check their notifications. A notification is the trigger to impending engagement; a link to click in an email, a juicy new article to read.

Engagement Design Based on Psychology

Notifications are the triggers, but they are just one of the tools used by designers to influence our behavior, foster usage habits, and make us more engaged with their products. Once we’re in, other tricks and tactics are used to make sure we stay there. The reason people feel pulled into the Vortex is because applications, emails, and websites are designed to be sticky.

In the early 1990s, B.J. Fogg started his work on captology (Computers as Persuasive Technologies). Fogg proposed that applications could be designed with the principles of human psychology in mind in order to get people to do things they might not do otherwise. The initial idea of captology evolved into the field now known as “behavior design,” which is the basis behind many of the tactics employed to make us use (and keep using) products today.

Fogg didn’t necessarily intend for these persuasive practices to be used to hijack our minds 20 years later. In fact, in a paper submitted to CHI in 1997, he said, “Exactly when and where such persuasion is beneficial and ethical should be the topic of further research and debate.”

We’re in an attention economy, where consumers receive services in exchange for their attention. There is so much content out there and only a limited amount of attention. The demand and competition for that attention with the ultimate goal of making a sale are behind these manipulative designs that suck us into the Vortex. A few examples of tactics used in such designs include:

  • Fear of missing out (FOMO):  A study by Marina Milyavskaya and colleagues has shown that the fear of missing out is a real source of anxiety and has a psychological basis behind it. People are afraid that if they don’t participate in an event or comply with a trend they will miss something valuable. Fear of missing out is related to loss aversion: for example, users often will keep receiving email newsletters or notifications from a business instead of unsubscribing out of fear that they will lose an interesting piece of content or a significant discount.
  • Infinite content and autoplay: Content channels that never provide an end or stopping point for users, but continue to provide related information are hard for people to walk away from. Think of Pinterest’s continuous scrolling pages. Think of watching a video on Facebook or YouTube, or a show on Hulu: the next video or episode begins right when the last one ended, keeping you hooked. Designers know that you are already immersed in the content and that it’s going to be hard to say “no” to one more image, one more video, one more episode.
  • Scarcity principle: Scarcity is a principle used heavily in ecommerce. If something is rare, it becomes more desirable. Emails with wording such as ‘While stocks last’, ‘This week only’, ‘Last one!’, or ‘Act now, before it’s too late’ are designed to exploit this principle. Users may click and spend time because they’re afraid that, if they don’t, it will be too late.
  • Foot-in-the-door: Designers lure users into a first interaction with the intention of taking much more. They make the entry interaction cost low, and then keep users engaged. Emails and notifications use wording like “Just one click” to suggest that the amount of effort and time spent will be low. Then, once the user obliges, the foot is in the door: the company has already gotten the attention it needed and can suck the user into many more interactions.
  • Hide-the-milk tactic: Grocery stores know that a frequent reason for shopping is to quickly grab a gallon of milk. To entice patrons to buy more, the milk is positioned in the back corner of the store, so people have to walk past all of the other products in the store twice (hopefully getting a few other things along the way). The same happens on the web. Designers know you will be using platforms and websites for very specific tasks like following up on notifications. So they design the experience to get as much business benefit out of your time. When you interact with a LinkedIn notification, the app drops you on the newsfeed, leaving it up to you to find the notification. This tactic ensures you see the newsfeed while you’re there ­— perhaps you’ll spend some or a lot of time browsing other content.

A rundown of similar techniques and many more is provided in an article by Tristan Harris.

Triggers and Mental Associations

Notifications and persuasive design are not the only contributors to the Vortex. We observed many instances where people’s initial digital activities spun off into a long unplanned chain or interactions, far removed from their original intention. Users began one task, then an item they encountered or something they remembered primed them to branch off into other activities. Generally, this type of behavior resulted in a handful of half-done tasks, often physically represented by a group of browser tabs. 

This is the nature of human memory. It happens in the real world, too. You go to the store for toilet paper, but on your way to the toiletries you see clothes hangers, which you also need, and that reminds you — you should look into replacing the old raincoat you lost while you’re here. Oh look, the new Julia Child memoir is out, you’ve been waiting for it to be released! Pretty soon you have to backtrack to get the raincoat and you go home without the toilet paper.

When these mental or external triggers cause us to branch our focus in various directions, it feels like an unproductive waste of time. Couple these natural tendencies with the tactics aimed at grabbing our attention and persuading us to click, and you have a recipe for the Vortex.

The chart shows how one participant’s attention branched in various directions while planning her children’s summer activity schedule. Large circles with icons indicate the beginning of an activity; the icon shows which device she was using. Small circles indicate new tabs that the user generated as part of that activity. Mental and external triggers cause her to branch off into alternative activities at various points in this process, leaving her with a several tasks performed in parallel.

User Perspectives on The Vortex

When they fell into the Vortex, users often blamed social media and entertainment applications. Three participants in our Shanghai study complained about the amount of time they wasted using the music and video social media app TikTok.

“I was using it [TikTok] too much. I was using it for more than an hour every day.”

“I felt overindulgent in how I was using TikTok. I needed to be more self-disciplined.”

“I can spend an hour at a time on TikTok just watching funny videos.”

The Vortex isn’t necessarily related to the amount of device time. We didn’t hear concerns from users about getting sucked into their work laptop. Much of the anxiety and frustration that participants expressed was related to a feeling of lost, unproductive, or wasted time. This feeling was often tinged with guilt or shame for being “out-of-touch” with the “real world.” One participant in our Toronto field study was a photographer and visual artist, and she commented on the impact the Vortex has on her work.

“When I’m working on my artwork, I’ll be checking my phone for a visual resource or something. I get sucked into some kind of vortex. The internet is food for my creative process. But I need to just make sure that’s what I’m actually doing, and not getting swept away.”

She attributed her distractions to social apps, like Instagram, but also to the intrusion of notifications. “When I get emails from clients, I want to respond right away, and I stop working.”

Some participants expressed an awareness that these websites and apps are designed to keep people engaged — eyes are worth money. In several cases, this awareness made the the user feel manipulated and resentful. One participant in our Raleigh study said angrily, “There are times where I’m researching something, and I’ll see one ad, which takes you to something else, click here, click there, and before you know it, three hours have passed! It’s addictive!” As an example, she pointed out that Facebook changed its video player so that an infinite succession of videos will autoplay until the user intentionally stops them. 

“It’s because they design it that way! They want us to stay on our phones, and it works.”

Facebook Videos
One participant reported feeling in the Vortex of Facebook’s video-autoplay feature.

A few participants mentioned being concerned about the Vortex in their lives and trying to take steps to resist it. A Raleigh participant told us, “I’ve told myself, especially when the weather’s nice, instead of sitting at home on my phone, I’ll put my phone down and go for a walk with my dog.” A Toronto participant reported that she once deleted Facebook from her phone so she wouldn’t use it, but then had to reinstall the app so she could communicate with a relative in Europe.

Some of our participants didn’t express any concern about being “pulled” or “sucked” into their devices. One participant told us she used to be worried about it, but felt in control now. Another participant acknowledged feeling the Vortex, but didn’t mind too much: “I probably waste too much time on my phone. But I love it.” Concern about the Vortex is not universal, but it is widespread.

The participants who did express concern about the Vortex tended to be:

  • Digital immigrants
  • Self-reflective or self-analytical
  • Low to medium in technological proficiency

There were exceptions: a few tech-savvy Millennials expressed concerns about the Vortex, and several low-tech elderly participants weren’t at all worried about it.

Among the concerned participants, parents were alarmed by the dangers the Vortex might pose to their children’s development and happiness. Our Toronto artist was a mother of two grade-school children. She told us, “I feel like I don’t have parameters around when I’m using [my phone]. And I don’t think it sets a great example.”

Fighting the Vortex

The narrative around the Vortex is shifting in our field. We’re moving from moral panic about the negative impacts of “device addiction” to a focus on how we can help users feel more in control of the way they use digital products.

Some refer to this as the Time Well Spent movement, which began attracting attention in 2017. In response, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Instagram have all begun announcing time-management features, intended to address device addiction. (Rachel Kraus of Mashable compared this trend to Marlboro Lights — an attempt to provide a lightweight-consumption alternative.) For example, iOS 12 offers new ways to reduce or silence notifications and shows statistics about the amount of time spent on the device. Users can even set restrictions for themselves, such as time limits for certain apps.

iOS 12’s Screen Time feature breaks down time spent on the iPhone by category. Kate plays a lot of I Love Hue.

Certainly these features have the potential to be useful. However, many of our users seemed to be already very aware of the amount of time they spent in the Vortex, and some had even tried to set self-imposed limits — without success. Time will tell if these approaches are actually helpful.

Your Responsibility

As long as UX designers keep manipulating psychological principles to suit their goals, and not their users’, it’s hard to imagine that the Vortex will go away. Before we can hope for improvement in this area, designers need to be aware of the problem and assess their role in it.

Though social media is an easy target to blame for this loss of control, we observed instances of this phenomenon in all types of services and applications. Anything that grabs attention and works hard to keep it for the benefit of the business over the user can be a factor.

Clearly, we at Nielsen Norman Group don’t think it’s inherently bad to design for persuasion or attention. (After all we offer two courses that discuss these topics: ­­ The Human Mind and Usability is about using psychology in designing user interfaces and Persuasive Design deals with convincing users to convert.) It’s okay to use design to encourage certain actions or engagement; however, UX professionals also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that their techniques do not cross a line with their users. This strategy becomes a problem when designs cause people to act against their own best interest or make them feel out of control.

Are your products contributing to the Vortex? Do they interrupt people or are they designed to steal attention? It’s not easy to honestly answer those questions, and the answer can only be obtained by observing users in their daily lives, as they engage with your products. Consider running a diary study over a period of time to see how people feel about their interactions with your products and services. Do they consider their time well spent, or do they feel out of control?

If it’s too hard to take an ethical stance when you’re confronted with your business interests, ask yourself: are the extra minutes of engagement worth the bad taste that your app will eventually leave your users with? In our research, users expressed negative feelings about those brands that were perceived as manipulative, and even deleted their apps as a result. You don’t want to be the company that makes people feel out of control and pulls them into the Vortex.


BJ Fogg and Clifford Nass. 1997. How Users Reciprocate to Computers: An experiment that demonstrates behavior change. CHI 97 Electronic Publications.

Marina Milyavskaya et al. 2018. Fear of missing out: prevalence, dynamics, and consequences of experiencing FOMO. Motivation and Emotion.

Rachel Kraus. 2018. ‘Time Well Spent’ features are the Marlboro Lights of the tech industry.

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