Want to Build Addictive Apps?

On social media, I recently saw an ad for an online course. The guru said that he would teach programmers how to make their apps more addictive. In the comments, there was backlash. The maker of the course likely anticipated this but was not deterred. 

During a time when the negative social effects of digital interactions are being so closely examined, does it make sense to brag about deliberately engineered addiction? 

On the flip side of that coin, was the addictive apps course developer just being more transparent than others? Everyone in the app space wants to make a buck,  and maximizing user engagement is one way to do that. Someone like this could be condemned for his tactics (and spreading them), or lauded for his transparency — maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. 

The course maker’s conspicuous branding might not have provoked such a strong response in the past. But this is becoming the third rail of our digital economy. Various ethical and political issues are intertwined with data-driven engagement. Which datasets are fair game, and what level of engagement is healthy? There isn’t a clear consensus. 

Research indicates that internet users are spending an average of 24 hours per week online. Yes, a full day, sacrificed to the so-called “black mirror.” One out of five people spend more than 40 hours each week online. As digital screens capture an increasing amount of time and attention, there is an inevitable impact upon mental health. Technologists are disrupting industries but various studies and critics contend that they’re also disrupting self-esteem, human connection, memory, sleep, and attention spans. 

Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s early investors, has been outspoken about these issues. He suggested that Facebook consciously strove to consume as much time and conscious attention as possible by including “a little dopamine hit every once in a while.” He described the process as “a social-validation feedback loop.” 

Apps provide a wide range of services. They can elevate brands and empower a convenient form of commerce. None of these things require compulsive engagement. Push notifications and colorful, chiming stimuli may increase usage, but apps don’t necessarily have to be addictive in order to function or turn a profit. Different business models incentivize different tactics. 

After all, Google Maps is an app. But no one would say that they’re “addicted” to maps. Perhaps a few fringe cartographers suffer from this affliction, but most of us don’t. We just open the app when we’re lost or need directions. 

I asked Roberta Matuson, president of Matuson Consulting, if she had any reaction to the marketing claims of the addictive apps course.

“I think this person’s move is brilliant,” she replied. “I mean would you sign up for a course that said ‘I’ll help you make your apps better?’ Probably not.” 

Matuson has helped a range of companies hit strong growth metrics by identifying, acquiring, nurturing, and retaining talent. Over the course of her consulting work with major brands, she has seen many different corporate cultures. I asked her if a corporate culture that begins with the idea of “let’s get people addicted” will turn out toxic or affect talent recruitment. 

“I doubt job seekers will take offense to the type of work culture where companies want clients addicted to their products” she said. “I mean what company doesn’t want people addicted to their products?” 

When asked about the course and the reaction in the post’s comments section, Pattern89 CEO and founder, R.J. Talyor, opined, “The digital consumer has definitely become more skeptical about all positioning in the space. Unfortunately, while the last five or so years have brought more point solutions and technology vendors, many of them over-promise and under-deliver. The result is a marketplace cluttered with competing voices and a new propensity to over-test and be hypercritical of many solutions.” 

He added, “Every startup is competing for attention and trying to differentiate themselves. Sometimes when it gets too hyperbolic, they are called out. The dark side of social sentiment is that a lot of people feel masked by the device and so the feedback is harsh.”

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