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You Are A User: How Silicon Valley Turns Your Smartphone Into A Drug

The many ways your iPhone or Android, and their apps, are built to hook you like a drug user. The UX (user experience) designers are confessing to their sins.

iAddict
iAddict
Anouch Seydtaghia

-Analysis-

LAUSANNE — It's a Swiss Army knife. A digital cuddly toy. But more importantly, it's an extremely powerful magnet. Every day, iPhone owners unlock their devices 80 times. That's five to six times per hour, if you consider 12 hours of use a day. This figure, revealed by Apple, doesn't say it all. People's interactions with their smartphones are indeed far more numerous than that. On average, people touch their screens 2,617 time every day, according to a study by research firm Dscout. We are obsessed with our smartphones.

And this obsession is carefully and perfectly maintained. You receive a notification for every new retweet. A vibration for a new "match" on Tinder. A Candy Crush alert calling you to a new game. A beep for every "like" on Facebook. Developers have stretched their inventiveness to drive us to get addicted to their apps. And, now, more and more inventors behind the technology we use everyday are making their mea culpa, admitting out loud that they've created monsters.

Loren Brichter is among these designers who are now expressing regret. He invented the "pull-to-refresh" feature in 2009. This technology was first used by Twitter, after it acquired Tweetie, the app Brichter worked for. "Smartphones are useful tools," he recently told The Guardian. "But they're addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about."

What we sell is addiction.

Justin Rosenstein, who invented Facebook's "like" button, now regrets the consequences of what he describes as "bright dings of pseudo-pleasure." And Tristan Harris, a former Google employee, now says that "product designers ... play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention."

But what is the degree of responsibility of technology and app developers? "My job is the only one — with drug dealing — where we talk about ‘users'," Gilles Demarty says with a smile. He is a UX Architect — "user experience architect" — for the Lausanne-based agency :ratio. "To overstate it somewhat, what we sell is addiction. There are similarities to drugs. We create products to meet the needs of the user. And if we do a good job, the user comes back ... obviously. We create loops, fast and easy to learn, like the "pull-to-refresh" function. The goal is for the user to get a small immediate satisfaction, for example with new content displayed."

Time to unplug — Photo: Lauren de Clerck

Nicolas Nova, a sociologist at HEAD in Geneva, compares this to slot machines: "You play by refreshing the screen, you don't know what you're going to find and you hope that something will happen, and sometimes you get a digital reward. The goal is to keep the interaction as intense as possible with the user. Silicon Valley app developers excel in this field, but these techniques are quickly being picked up on worldwide."

Gilles Demarty admits it easily: These techniques aren't necessarily recent. But they are becoming more and more effective. "We have at our disposal extremely accurate data and statistics to study how people are responding to small design changes. It's easy to run two designs in parallel to see which one is the most efficient," says Xavier Diverres, an independent UX designer in Lausanne.

It's a social-validation feedback loop.

For these experts, all app developers have more or less the same recipes. But the most effective are Facebook and Google. "The creation, by social networks, of an infinite thread of information, is very effective," Diverres explains. "Facebook knows that its members are afraid of missing a post, and are thus encouraged to spend a lot of time looking at their news feed."

According to Sean Parker, Facebook's founding president, everything is cleverly calculated. The social network's goal all along has been to answer this question: "How can we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?" Short answer: by exploiting "a vulnerability in the human mind." Parker recently said that "we need to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while, because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever. And that's going to get you to contribute more content, and that's going to get you ... more likes and comments. It's a social-validation feedback loop."

Facebook is not the only one. The social network Snapchat features the "Snapstreak," which tracks the intensity of a conversation with friends. "We've hijacked what 100 million teenagers view as the currency of friendship," according to Tristan Harris. Another example: A few months ago, Netflix director Reed Hastings clearly admitted the tricks his video service use. "You get a show or a movie you're really dying to watch, and you end up staying up late at night, so we actually compete with sleep," he said.

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Martin Schutt/dpa via ZUMA
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-Analysis-

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