27 June 2019

‘Designed Addiction’ – the Persuasive Design behind Screen Time

Designed addiction – it’s on the UK Government’s radar as an ‘emerging challenge’ online, including how we interact with social media, gambling and gaming platforms. The ‘Online Harms White Paper’ (published in April 2019), authored by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the Home Office, describes concerns around designed addiction and excessive screen time – where online products have been developed ‘to encourage continuous use’.

Also called ‘persuasive design’, tech developers apply an understanding of human motivation and psychology, when creating and updating their products. Over time, systems can learn about our habits, make suggestions and even predict our future behaviour. Persuasive design can be very positive and helpful – speeding up transactions, simplifying purchases, entertaining us, helping us to learn and connecting us across continents. But where is the line between improving user experiences online and designed addiction?

Awareness is key to understanding and adapting our behaviour online – so in this article, we’ll cover the psychology of designed addiction and 10 common features of persuasive design today.

If your health and wellbeing are affected by excessive screen time, please call UKAT for an assessment and treatment options.

Designed Addiction – The Psychology of Persuasive Design

The goal of persuasive design is helping users to process information easily and take actions online. It’s about enabling quick decisions – to interact, play, spend and share. Tech developers and digital marketers want to minimise boredom. They never want us to feel frustrated or confused on their platforms. Persuasive design is about surprising us and speaking to us personally. It aims to please us, by tapping into our habits and preferences.

In terms of designed addiction, perhaps the most significant feature of persuasive design centres around recognition and reward. Online products and systems that validate our participation, notice our efforts, prioritise the things that are important to us and reward our loyalty are much more satisfying – and potentially addictive – than impersonal, one-size-fits-all, technology.

Designed Addiction – 10 Common Features of Persuasive Design Online

  1. Quick sign-ups and first name terms
a photo of human hands being chained by computer cables
Quick sign-ups and gathering personal data – these are two basics of persuasive design online. In our fast-paced world, it has to be simple to join, otherwise, most of us won’t bother. Developers and marketers also understand the power of personalisation, which starts with knowing your name.

For example, you sign up to a social media platform. You give your name and your email address. You choose a password and sometimes a social media handle. And that’s it – you’re in.

From the start, your name appears on the screen. System notifications and messages can be addressed to you personally. You can give more information about your interests. From there, you can customise and post as much as you want.

  1. Notifications within the platform

Typically, notifications are numbers – bold or brightly coloured, sometimes flashing or in brackets. Notifications alert us to messages in our inbox, interactions with our social media posts, winnings in our account or relevant content.

The notification number appeals to our curiosity, requiring us to take action to get something we want – it sets up a ‘ludic loop’ of anticipation, discovery and varying degrees of reward.

Most platforms give users the choice to define the type and amount of notifications they receive. However, altering your notification settings takes time, which not everyone wants to do.

  1. Notifications to email, desktop, mobile or text

These are notification alerts sent from the app or platform to your email, computer or mobile phone. They’re customisable but often the default settings are switched on.

Notification messages encourage action – such as ‘highlights for you’, ‘here’s what you missed’, ‘you have 15 updates and 2 messages waiting for you’ and ‘you appeared in 12 searches this week’. They set up the desire to discover and the potential for reward.

In 2018, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force, changing how global organisations can use data to communicate with EU citizens. Active opt-in is now required for marketing communications to business prospects, for example, meaning it’s illegal to send marketing messages without prior permission. However, if you’re already a customer or a subscriber to a site, the company can say that ‘legitimate interest’ has been established.

  1. Likes and comments
a photo of a bok of pills with the facebook logo on it
Likes and comments are the cornerstones of social media platforms. They tap into our human need to participate and thrive in social groups. Likes and comments play on fundamental aspects of our psychology – including the satisfaction most of us derive from being noticed or affirmed.

In 2016, Facebook rolled out it’s augmented like functionality. Human reactions to information were expanded to six categories – like, love, haha, wow, sad and angry. This update amplified the potential for users to give appreciation and feel appreciated, as well as to express dissatisfaction or distaste. Controversy can often be more compelling than validation, often increasing screen time as a result.

  1. Recognition of your milestones and achievements

If you’re a WordPress blogger, you’ll get recognition the more you post and the more your audience engages. Notifications like ‘your stats are booming’, ‘you’ve received 50 follows’ or ‘happy anniversary’ – often with trophy icons and colourful buttons – are all intended to make you feel good and engage more.

If you’re a Facebook user, you’ll be sent birthday and ‘friendversary’ animations – celebrating relevant content you’ve shared and important relationships.

If you run a Facebook group, you’ll get a notification that congratulates you when you reach everything from 100 to 1,000,000 likes – encouraging you to pursue more followers and unlock functionality.

  1. The infinite scroll

Think of news feeds on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. There is always something more to see, perhaps something really interesting, if you just scroll further. There is no end to the information, so you could be missing out if you log off.

With no stopping point to information online, users have to regulate their own use. Some find this easier than others.

  1. Refresh buttons and pull-to-refresh

This feature of social media news feeds, live media updates and online sales events contribute to cycles of anticipation, discovery and reward.

Think of highly anticipated ticket sales – such as the annual scramble for Glastonbury Festival tickets. Or live updates about a compelling news story or football match that you’re following online. The repetitive action of refreshing the page, to seek exciting information, is a feature of persuasive design that can extend our screen time. It’s the randomness of the reward that compels people to refresh multiple times – a feature similar to slot machines.

  1. Semiotics – how we interpret signs and signals

Semiotics is about the use of colours, imagery, typography, layouts and branding, which is designed to appeal to specific audiences, as well as predict how people will respond. It involves a sophisticated understanding of how humans respond to information and stimuli in their environment – working elements into the design to increase engagement.

For example, the colour red has long been associated with paying attention to important information. Many road signs use red to catch our eye, signal information or warn us. Likewise, many developers have used red for notification icons and other calls to action, to draw our attention and encourage action.

  1. Opportunities to compete, win, earn or get free stuff

This is central to gambling and gaming platforms. Persuasive design features include incentivising sign-ups to gambling accounts with matched betting offers, encouraging competitive battles between online gamers, in-app purchases to enhance gameplay, rewarding users with advertising kickbacks or prize revenue and offering free merchandise to top account holders.

It’s also a very common tactic to encourage people to sign up to email databases and social media groups. Known as lead magnets, you’ll get a free e-book or prize draw entry, in exchange for your email address or for liking and sharing a post.

  1. Algorithms, machine learning and artificial intelligence
Algorithms are coded instructions online, which determine what happen each time users interact online. They’re the foundations of technological systems, designed to take people from ‘a’ to ‘b’ online.

Algorithms are the basic building blocks of more sophisticated machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). Systems are designed to learn over time about our online habits, our likes and dislikes, our purchases, favourite activities and more. They can make relevant recommendations and block unsuitable or irrelevant content.

In future, AI will become even more sophisticated, utilising technologies that can learn and respond in unpredictable circumstances, without the need for human intervention.


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