"From the time I started playing, it was just all I could think about," writer Erickka Sy Savane told ABC News in 2014 about her experience playing the popular game app Candy Crush. "I was one of those people you see on the trains and in the grocery store lines playing -- whenever I had a free moment." Soon, Savane found, she was neglecting important parts of her life in order to feed her Candy Crush habit. "I would sneak away to be by myself so I could play," she said. "Put them to bed early, drop them off at school really quick -- just kinda push them to the side. It was all-consuming."

And it’s not just Candy Crush that has the potential to create this kind of irresistible compulsion among so many users. Any app, in the hands of unscrupulous or unwitting developers, whether it’s a game, B2B, B2C, or social media, can sow the destructive seeds of full-blown addiction. 

Like a lot of people, for instance, you probably check your Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram throughout the day more times than you’d care to admit. The whisper in your head gets louder and louder until it turns into an itch that only be scratched by turning to your app of choice. Each time, you hope to experience that rush of dopamine you get when someone has liked your latest post, Tweet, or photograph. Maybe you even find yourself feeling guilty about checking these apps when you should be working, or reading, or interacting with your loved ones.

It’s no accident that for many of us, our relationship with certain apps has taken on this unhealthy compulsive aspect. Make no mistake: This disturbing trend is strictly by design. In Kernel’s special addiction-themed issue, Nithin Coca writes that, 

If usage and frequency are the most important stats, then it stands to reason that the more often someone uses an app, the better it is for developers. With millions of apps out there competing for limited user time, they are being designed—through push notifications, re engagement tools, and, increasingly, machine learning—to intentionally boost usage numbers. Clearly, apps are designed to be addicting.

And all of the potentially soul-destroying effects we associate with addiction to an insidious substance like heroin can also manifest to some degree no matter the source of the addiction. Even addiction to a seemingly positive behavior, such as healthy eating, can turn dark and become anorexia.

Addict Identities

In 2004 -- the year Facebook launched -- the British Journal of Sociology published a prescient article about consumer addiction, entitled “Consumption and its Discontents: Addiction, Identity, and the Problems of Freedom.” The author, Gerda Reith, describes a phenomenon in which ever-increasing opportunities and imperatives for consumers to exercise their freedom of choice has led to a paradoxical loss of freedom and sense of self for many. 

In other words, faced with an overabundance of choice we can lose our own agency and become slaves to consumption. These resulting “addict identities,” she says, “have increasingly come to be defined in terms of subjective, individual evaluations of loss of control.” Although app addiction wasn’t yet “a thing,” Reith could have been describing the fraught relationship many people have with apps like Candy Crush, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,  Google Analytics, and Slack.

By now, everyone, even SaaS companies, wants in on the app addiction game. As Nithin Coca pointed out, “In fact, addiction is built into the mindset of app development. And it’s not even subtle. ... In the modern tech mindset, addictive apps generate the most revenue.” After all, what better shortcut to revenue could there be than creating an army of consumers who are compulsively addicted to your product? It’s certainly appealing if you aren’t bothered by a little thing like ethics.

And for those developers who want to create this addictive compulsion among users, design consultant Nir Eyal has provided a roadmap in his popular manifesto, Hooked: How to Create Habit-Forming Products. In a nutshell, Eyal describes an iterative process in which external triggers that drive interaction -- push notifications, for example -- are converted into internal triggers that pull a person back to the product over and over again. Users are cycled through four main stages, over and over again:

  • Trigger: The action the compels the user to perform an action. Eventually this trigger becomes the user’s own internal compulsion
  • Action: The action the user needs to perform
  • Variable reward: Users don’t always receive the same reward -- sometimes they receive none. This plays on the psychological idea that anticipation of reward is better than the reward itself
  • Investment: Eyal writes that “The more users invest time and effort into a product or service, the more they value it.”

Go through this cycle enough times, Eyal says, and your users will be totally hooked on your product. He writes, “Feelings of boredom, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and indecisiveness often instigate a slight pain or irritation and prompt an almost instantaneous and often mindless action to quell the negative sensation … Gradually, these bonds cement into a habit as users turn to your product when experiencing certain internal triggers.” While he doesn’t explicitly say so, this process Eyal describes is eerily similar (if not identical) to actual substance addiction.

Eyal’s “hook cycle” takes some inspiration from the work of Harvard psychologist BF Skinner. In 1930, Skinner performed experiments on hungry lab rats. He placed the rats in a box with a lever. At first the rats accidentally knocked the lever, causing a food pellet to be released. After a while, the rats learned that pressing the lever resulted in a food reward. After learning this, as soon as the rats were placed in the box they compulsively ran to the lever, seeking their reward. Skinner theorized that the same principle applied to any “operant,” rat or man. He called his device the “operant conditioning chamber,” and it became known as the Skinner box. In a sense, Eyal’s methods offer a lucrative way for app developers to make lab rats of us all.

Eyal’s work also draws heavily from the work of his former professor, Stanford behavioral scientist BJ Fogg. Fogg’s behavioral model posits that three things need to be present in order for someone to perform a desired behavior: motivation, ability, and a trigger to perform the action. But where Fogg’s behavioral model seeks to give people the power to perform or change desired behaviors, Eyal’s model takes a walk on the dark side by trying to take away our ability to choose. The endpoint of the application of Eyal’s model are apps that, by design, seek to increase usage and engagement by taking away the consumer's ability to control their own interactions with it.

Avid, Engaged Use Rather Than Addiction

If you want to drive adoption and usage of your product without all these icky implications of creating addiction, driving avid use is the only ethical and effective path to boost engagement. Engaged users derive consistent value from your product on their own terms. They will turn to your product whenever they need it to help them make progress towards their goals. Rather than associating your product with feelings of guilt and loss of freedom, avid users will become enthusiastic champions for your product, because it helps them achieve their goals and accomplish tasks. Rather than creating problems of unease and self-recrimination, engaged users appreciate that your product helps remove struggles and obstacles from their lives.

Of course, this means that instead of forcing your users through an addictive behavioral loop, you must actually provide real value, rather than vice. You need to understand what job users are hiring your product to do, and then do that job better than what they were using before they decided to hire your product and fire something else.

Eyal’s triggers aim to create an unhealthy fixation in users, a nagging sensation that they need to return to this app in the vague (and endless) hope that they might receive an award. In contrast, in the context of the job your product has been hired to do, the trigger is directly associated with the value they are seeking. Bottom line: If you aren’t creating value then you may be unwittingly creating addicts.

And, unlike in the Hooked model, to create avid users you must provide consistent reliable results. Eyal’s variable reward mechanism may represent an unfortunate psychological truth when it comes to creating an addictive app like Candy Crush. But in the SaaS world, random rewards just won’t cut it long term. Think of it this way: How pleased would you be if Google only returned a search result 50 percent of the time? If you’ve promised to deliver value to your users and then break that promise with tricks like a variable reward mechanism, don’t be surprised if they churn.

The Language of Manipulation

The lurking insidiousness of Eyal’s method can be found in the very language he uses to defend it. Take his “Manipulation Matrix.” In Hooked, he warns against enslaving users with nefarious intent, and identifies four types of developers:

  • Facilitators believe that their products can improve the lives of the users and use the product themselves.
  • Peddlers believe that their products can improve the lives of the users, but don’t use the product themselves.
  • Entertainers don’t believe that their product will improve the lives of the users, but use the product themselves.
  • Dealers don’t believe that their product will improve the lives of the users, and don’t use the product themselves.

On the other hand, Fogg’s behavioral model theories, from which Eyal draws so heavily, are meant to facilitate a desired change in behavior, and don’t remove a person’s self-determination. And they can most certainly be applied to create products that deliver value to users. But Fogg himself has expressed unease with Eyal’s Machiavellian applications of his theories. In “The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive,” a feature in 1843, the Economist’s culture and lifestyle magazine, the reporter interviews Fogg about the relationship of his ideas to the creation of addictive apps. He notes:

The only times during our conversations when [Fogg's] tone darkened were when he considered the misuse of his ideas in the commercial sphere. He worries that companies like Instagram and Facebook are using behaviour design merely to keep consumers in thrall to them. One of his alumni, Nir Eyal, went on to write a successful book, aimed at tech entrepreneurs, called Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.
'I look at some of my former students and I wonder if they’re really trying to make the world better, or just make money,' said Fogg. 'What I always wanted to do was un-enslave people from technology.'

Ultimately, long term success comes down to honesty and integrity. Breaking promises to your users -- whether that means misrepresenting or over selling your product to make that one-time sale, or trying to create an addicted customer base -- is a violation of trust. You have explicitly or implicitly promised to deliver value, make their lives easier, remove struggles and obstacles, and do the job they hired your product to do. 

Misrepresenting your product to make a quick sale will lead to anger, bad word of mouth, and zero loyalty. And the techniques Eyal outlines in Hooked are, at their core, unsound in a B2B application. Even if you do create a slew of addicts, eventually those enslaved customers will realize that the value you’re providing is, at best, unpredictable. And they will churn and get their fix elsewhere.

It turns out that the right way to do things is also … well, the right way to do things.