Designing For Addiction: The Enemy of Product Innovation

Originally published on Medium.

Designing for Addiction is the Default.

Have you ever found yourself watching Netflix late at night when an episode of your favorite show ends? You know it’s time to go to bed, still “you could start the next episode.” While you’re thinking, a “Next episode” box appears in the lower right of the screen. A counter ticks down.

You don’t do anything. The next episode starts (and ends). Maybe you go to bed or perhaps you keep watching.

There are similar small experiences in many products that are built to make staying in the experience easy.

This next episode experience is not an accident. The automatic next episode is a designed experience. The counter is there because it gives you a sense of control.

This, intended or not, is designed for addiction.

Designing for Addiction Hinders Innovation

Building for attention = building for addiction.

The best lies are those close to reality. The enemy of innovation is the status quo; designing for attention has become a status quo.

This lie comes in many forms and hides as “growth,” “engagement,” and “usage.”

The desire to build products we care about enables accepting (the lie) that engagement is the most meaningful metric. We say to ourselves that if product usage increases, the product must be good (or we hope it is).

So how do we not design for addiction or avoid getting so hyper-focused on metrics that we forget about people?

Don’t View People as Metrics

Know What Your Taking

I’ve been working on an enterprise app. It will be used by people for 6 to 8 hours a day. That, times thousands of people, means that every week, there will be 10 years’ worth of time spent using the app!

While our goal is actually to reduce the time it takes to complete tasks, we still measure usage. When we aggregate that usage and think about it as it relates to real people, we get a sense of the impact our product has, not just in economic terms but in terms of other people using what we made.

Knowing the time we take from people gives perspective on our work.

What Not to Do

In an interview with Axios, Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook, shared Facebook’s early leadership thinking: “How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Parker continues:

“That means that we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever… It’s a social validation feedback loop… You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”

In the interview Sean speaks in a way that seems regretful of this thinking.

I have friends at Facebook and I’ve heard design leaders speak at Facebook, the above doesn’t reflect their thinking. Still, the result as an end user appears to be design that takes ones attention many times to a fault.

Even Small Products Should Recognize Worth of People

Maybe Facebook intended to exploit human behavior for ad dollars, but in time and at scale, this kind of thinking became not only about how a platform operates, but also how it teaches people to behave. (Getting attention means you are a person of worth. This is also a lie.)

Even if what you make is small product, we should be responsible for what we have and consider the people we see in metrics.

A new path forward: Can we measure product usefulness?

My friend, Craig, sent me an Instagram message sharing a link to TedX talk, by Tristan Harris, who is an ex-Googler. Harris speaks and writes how the products we create are often built for addiction. His big idea is designing products that give people back their time and value.

Measuring usefulness is much harder than measuring usage.

We have lots of tools to see how long people spend on a site and track their behavior; it’s been automated for a long time now, but the value someone gets from a product is often gained outside the product. This is a significant barrier to measuring more than usage.

Learning to measure “useful” is a barrier that’s worth overcoming.

The idea is not to measure usefulness instead of usage, but to measure it alongside usage.

How CouchSurfing Got Creative to Measure Useful started to measure net new relationship time. CouchSurfing was the predecessor to Airbnb; it’s a website platform where people open their homes as hosts, and travelers can crash on their couches.

The CouchSurfing team started measuring the time people spent finding a host home on their website versus the time a couch surfer and a host spent together.

For example, if it took a CouchSurfer user 30 minutes to connect with a host and the host and the user positivity connected for 5 hours, then says 4.5 hours of new positive time was created!

That’s an excellent way to think about usefulness.

You Don’t Have to Design for Addiction

I think most of us want to make products that consider people; we just get pulled into the orbit of business goals and metrics and forget to look up.

To move away from addiction we need to move towards dignity.

Assume people have dignity and know that what you have built takes other people’s finite time. Connect what you measure with the people you are measuring. The more usage, the more impact and responsibility we have.

The good news is that even the most addictive products are built by people, and we can choose to create products that consider our fellow humans.

Design for people.