The dark side of addictive products

Are products such as Facebook, Snapchat and Flappy birds just benign habits or are they crack grade maliscious addictions? When does product “stickiness” turn from a simple habit into an actual addiction?

As anyone my age growing up, Star Wars was a huge influence on my world view. I was againstof the dark side and I trusted Luke Skywalker and Yoda to restore order to the universe. I recently found a fun infographic translating MBTi personality types to Star Wars characters and to my surprise I realised that my MBTi personality type matched Senator Palpatine or the emperor (my wife’s personality type is Jar jar Binks, which is probably the most unlikely match in the Star Wars Universe). Anyhow, it led me to realise that I have acquired a deeper understanding of the dark side in my later years. I now also really hate the furry creatures in Episode 6 and the hipster attitude of the rebel alliance is truly worthy of extinction. But let’s not get carried away here.

I was reading “Hooked – How to Build Habit-Forming Products” by Nir Eyal. The book is about how to make your product addictive. That is naturally what anybody creating a product wants. When you create a product you also want users to love it and you will try to make it sticky, but when does usability turn into manipulation? When does satisfying a legitimate need turn into creating an artificial need and turn it into an addiction? When is it unethical? When do you cross over to the dark side in product development?

Addictive products
A recent example of an addictive product is Flappy Birds, which was allegedly withdrawn because the programmer had qualms about the addictive potential of his game. People simply couldn’t stop playing it and became addicted. He was apparently refusing the dark side of product stickiness (I suspect that somebody had a serious talk with him about his game using trademarked characters like Mario and the price of doing so)

Other products are genuinely usefully addictive, like a calory counter for eating more healthy, or fitness apps like endomondo for keeping fit, although they may not really spur the same kind of addiction.

yet other products have definitely crossed the line, like online casinos and poker sites. They prey on the gamblers need for the adrenalin rush that comes with winning.

But what about Facebook, instagram, snapchat or word feud? Surely they are addictive, but have they crossed over to the dark side?

The anatomy of addiction
I remember a 90’s song by K’s choice: “not an addict”. The chorus goes like this: “It’s not a habit it’s cool, I feel alive/ the deeper you stick it in your vein/the deeper the thoughts, there’s no more pain”. The thinking here is that you are doing what you are doing because it is rewarding. You are still in control, but the ironical implication of the song is that you don’t know yourself that you are not in control. So, what is an addiction actually?

According to the Merriam-webster dictionary an addiction can be defined thus:

“persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be physically, psychologically, or socially harmful”

If we abstract the essence of this, the key words here are compulsion and harmful. We could therefore say that if something forces itself upon you and it is harmful it is an addiction.

When are products good or evil?
That would seem to indicate that when a product forces upon the user a compulsive and harmful use, it should be considered addictive. The craft of doing this leads you to the dark side. Here we should notice that Facebook could be considered addictive for some people in so far as it could lead to withdrawal and paradoxically social isolation. For other people it could lead to increased reach of social ties. Consequently a product is not in itself harmful and addictive, but could be more or less appealing towards addictive use. In order to figure out if a product is good or evil we have to look at the side effects of the user. If they are positive it is merely a good habit if they are negative they are an addiction.

If you design the product for addictive use, where the side effect will inevitably be harmful, it is evil. Gambling apps are therefore evil, since the side effect (at least on average) is inevitably that the user will loose money. The compulsion forces the user to keep loosing money.

Fitness apps are good because the side effect is good: increased health. The same could be said for learning games or citizen science games.

Flappy birds? if reports of intense disgruntlement with the difficulty of the game is to be taken at face value, it is the workings of the dark side. But I suspect that flappy gamers quickly regained their previous mood and were not severely negatively affected by the game.

So, if you are learning the art of creating habit forming products, be sure not to drift into the the dark side. Make up your mind about whether the product has a benign or malign effect on its intended users.