Can’t Put Down Your Device? That’s by Design – The New York Times

Next time you can’t stop yourself looking at your various social media feeds and other apps, consider how companies are engineering such stickiness:

Tech companies tend to present these feedback loops as consumer conveniences. A new Intel TV ad, for instance, shows a young girl in the back of a car growing sad because the laptop on which she was watching a singalong video suddenly runs out of power. The company’s new battery-preserving processor, though, ultimately saves the day, “so you never have to stop watching.” T-Mobile has just introduced BingeOn, a feature that offers subscribers on certain plans unlimited high-speed access to popular streaming video channels.

An image from “Network Effect.”

There’s even an industry term for the experts who continually test and tweak apps and sites to better hook consumers, keep them coming back and persuade them to stay longer: growth hackers.

“How do you drive habitual use of a product?” said Sean Ellis, the chief executive of GrowthHackers.com, a software company specializing in online growth techniques. “It’s not just about getting new people. It’s about retaining the people you already have and, ultimately, getting them to bring in more people.”

As an example, Mr. Ellis described how he recently started using a free meditation app, called Calm, which has a calendar feature that gently nudges subscribers to use the service more. Every time he finishes a session, the app “shows me I’m doing one every three to four days,” Mr. Ellis said. “But it’s clear to me that I should be doing one every day, based on the graphic.”

Yet technologists like Tristan Harris, a design ethicist who is also a product philosopher at Google, warn that growth hacking, taken to its extreme, can encourage sites and apps to escalate their use of persuasive design techniques with potentially unintended consequences for consumers. He compares online engagement maximization efforts to the so-called bliss-point techniques some food companies have developed to hook consumers on a stew of fat, salt and sugar.

“The ‘I don’t have enough willpower’ conversation misses the fact that there are 1,000 people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down the self-regulation that you have,” said Mr. Harris, who emphasized that he was speaking only for himself and not for Google.

Mr. Harris is also the co-director of an effort called Time Well Spent, which encourages tech companies to provide more choices for users who would like to limit session-prolonging techniques like autoplaying one video or song after another. He said he envisioned alternative app designs that might measure success not in followers, connections, endorsements or likes accumulated, but in meaningful relationships developed or desired jobs offered.

“Right now, many company leaders and designers would like to do these things differently, but the incentives aren’t aligned to do this,” Mr. Harris said.

Certainly, it may be difficult for efforts like Time Well Spent and art projects like “Network Effect” to sway companies that find themselves in increasingly heated competition for online users’ attention.

Source: Can’t Put Down Your Device? That’s by Design – The New York Times

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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