UX Philosophy

Can developers combat smartphone addiction?

Lara WilliamsLara Williams, Editor-at-large

It’s no secret that technology is designed to be addictive, but should developers be more ethical in their approach to UX?

Apps rely on user addiction in order to think of themselves as successful. For example, developers will often rank an app’s success based on user engagement, or how much time users spend interacting with a site or application. The more time, the better and the more addicted, the more time. Hence, apps are designed to make you as addicted as possible.

AA – Apps Anonymous

Reward-motivated behaviour keeps us hooked. While usually associated with rats, buttons and food delivered at variable intervals, fundamentally it’s the same thing. The only difference is that we are the rats, and notifications are our treats. addiction rat Every time we get that ping or buzz of new notification, we get a burst of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that plays an important role in controlling the reward and pleasure centres of your brain. The result is a deep bond with the product, and the intense desire to keep checking and using it in a way that gets you more ‘rewards’ or notifications. Time these notifications just right, and you’ve got an addictive app. Instagram, for example, will withhold notifications of likes on your post, pushing them out if you’ve not opened the app for a while. It’s a genius feature, that ensures users return for more dopamine deliveries. But it doesn’t always make users happy. Ian Leslie noted in 1843 Magazine that for heavy users of Instagram “Every new follow and every comment delivered an emotional hit. But…they weren’t able to enjoy whatever they were doing, which made them stressed and unhappy.” A new study also revealed a stark negative correlation between average minutes per day and happiness.

Source: Thrive Global

So should developers think more empathetically about users and their time? And is there a way to combat addiction?

You just need some Space

Tristan Harris, founder of Time Well Spent and previously Design Ethicist for Google, thinks it’s up to developers to create more ethical software. Criticising the attention economy and technology companies for exploiting our pyschological vulnerabilities, he believes in designers adopting a Hippocratic Oath to restore agency and freewill to users. He told Wired: “Right now when you wake up in the morning it’s like every app is still competing all at once for your attention. Netflix and Facebook and YouTube want your attention just as much as the morning meditation apps. “Imagine if there were zoning laws…So when you wake up, you’d see a morning home screen, in which things compete to help you wake up, which could include there being nothing on there at all.” The idea is that users would be encouraged and free to do what’s best for them in the morning, rather than being driven to check Facebook and Twitter by notifications. But while ‘zoning laws’ would work, this is down to companies like Apple and Google who design the operating systems rather than the apps. A new app has been designed to help combat addiction yet, ironically, it’s from the same company that has perfected the art of creating it. Dopamine Labs’ API is the few lines of code responsible for holding back those Instagram likes and delivering them at just the right moment. The same start-up has developed an app that works as a kind of anti-dopamine – Space. Space delays the moment of gratification by bringing up a breathing prompt when you try and open the likes of Facebook or Snapchat.
smartphone addiction app

Source: Dopamine Labs

By making you take a deep breath before accessing that notification it short-circuits instant gratification, reducing that dopamine rush and putting you back in control. It’s smart too, the more you use an app, the longer it makes you wait. Founder Ramsey Brown says: “It allows people to be a little more intentional.” He argues that: “transparency around mind hijacking, and understanding how this is already happening to us all of the time, is essential to creating more mindful relationships with technology.” By releasing software that can create and undo addiction, Dopamine Labs is placing itself at opposite ends of the spectrum – but at least it’s honest about it. Developers now have the choice about which end to occupy and the tools with which to do it. With technology adapting faster than our brains can cope, maybe they’d do well to think of users as little rats with buttons.

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