Thanks to the widespread proliferation of smartphones and the overwhelming impact they have on our daily lives, a lot of people are making efforts to manage their “addiction” to their phones. This addiction can take many forms, from involuntarily checking your Facebook account when you only intended to check the weather, or feeling panic when access to your phone is hampered. The implications of these compulsions on our behaviour are significant; research shows that “when interrupted, people take an average of 25 minutes to return to their original task.”
While an attempt to reduce one’s reliance on their phone is noble, and usually advised, what many people don’t realise is that they are not necessarily fighting a fair battle. In other words, people think the technology is neutral, and that it is merely their will power that is lacking when it comes to putting down the phone. But the reality is far from that. The developers who design and tweak the software on our phones are masters in the art of persuasion. They are not merely offering a free service that we might like to use; instead, they are using the science of persuasion to convince us to stay on their platform or device for longer periods of time. In a sense, we see the battle as us versus the screen, but in truth the battle is us versus a thousand engineers on the other side of that screen, who are paid to keep us looking at it for longer and longer.
At the crux of this science is the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University. The designers and founders of some of your favourite apps (including Instagram) are alumni of this programme, which has “earned a cultlike following among entrepreneurs hoping to master the principles of ‘behavior design’—a euphemism for what sometimes amounts to building software that nudges us toward the habits a company seeks to instill.”
So what are some of the metrics and techniques that persuasive tech designers are looking for in their users? Here’s a quick look:
“7 Day Active user”: This term is the holy grail of software designers. It is a tally of how many users out of your total number have used the service or platform for all of the past 7 days. Because the goal with any software designer is to turn it into a habit rather than a mere destination or one-off, if a user has logged on for 7 days in a row, that’s a good sign it has become ingrained in their daily activity as a habit, rather than a choice or necessity.
“Variable rewards”: Whether you’re checking your email, your Instagram or your Twitter, we never quite know what we’re going to find. It could be spam, a note from a loved one, or an exciting job offer, and this variability is key to creating a habit. Research shows that “delivering rewards at random has been proved to quickly and strongly reinforce behavior,” so our notification panels turn into little slot machines of dopamine hits. Sometimes we get validation, and sometimes we don’t—but the chance that we might keeps us going back for more.
Infinite Scroll: The perception that there is no limit to how far down you could scroll through your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram feed is intentional. Some have called this the “bottomless bowl” effect, referencing research which shows that “people eat 73 percent more soup out of self-refilling bowls than out of regular ones, without realizing they’ve consumed extra.” In other words, because it’s available, we look, even if that’s not what we want to be doing.