Chasing the (App) Dragon: Are You Unwittingly Creating a Base of Addicts?

Because you’d much rather foster engagement by creating value and maintaining a healthy relationship with your customers, rather than enslaving them, make sure you aren't accidentally creating a customer base of app addicts

If someone asked you, “What would you do to drive adoption and increase engagement with your product?” chances are your answer would be some version of “Whatever it takes.” And this is especially true if users aren’t adopting your product with the fervor you’d hoped for.

And so, if you’ve come across Nir Eyal’s Hooked, How To Create Habit Forming Products, you may have had something of an epiphany. You may feel as if you’ve found the Holy Grail of customer engagement. Eyal’s methods have certainly become all the rage among those seeking a magic bullet to drive adoption. In a nutshell, to hook users, 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 the more users invest time and effort into a product or service, the more they value it.

In fact, you probably had a bit of a “Why didn’t I think of that?” moment when you realized just how easy it could be to hook users on your product. But there’s a darkness hidden below the surface of this seemingly surefire and innocuous method. Consider what Psychology Today has to say about the line between activity and addiction:

[The] line between activity and addiction lies where an activity that is positive or neutral takes a decidedly negative turn. Whether it is watching Netflix, social media, going to the gym, eating healthy, eating junk food, having sex, or playing video games, each of these activities have a line that crosses into negative territory.

Though he doesn’t come right out and say it (though he comes close) the line that Eyal is crossing is the one between healthy engagement and addiction. Yes, it’s true: Addiction isn’t just for drugs or overtly harmful substances. It can happen anytime a behavior spirals out of our control -- whether that’s eating, exercising, or interacting with an app.

An Addictive Relationship

And all the toxic manifestations of an addictive relationship hold true in app addiction as well: You’re the supplier. Your users are .. well, your users. Addicts are commonly beset with feelings of guilt and self recrimination that spring from their compulsion. They “chase the dragon” in a futile attempt to recreate that first high -- in this case, their first big win or ah-ha moment with your product. And the variable rewards recommended by Eyal in the Hook Cycle only encourage such an unhealthy cycle of behaviors.

Addicts of all stripes eventually develop a love/hate relationship with both their dealers and the source of their addiction .. and as hate grows stronger than love, they try to quit. After all, have you ever heard of an addiction that ends well?

It’s no wonder, then, that as Jacob Weisberg writes in the New York Times, “People colloquially describe sessions online as getting a fix, or refer to disconnection from social media as detoxing or going cold turkey. The industry can’t help talking that way either, about ‘users’ and ‘devices.’”

Last year, Raefer Gabriel, a data scientist who specializes in app usage and behavior, was interviewed for a feature in the Kernel's special addiction-themed issue. He said that he believes the heart of the problem is in the mentality that dominates what he calls Silicon Valley thinking. “Certain developers could take cues from the gaming or gambling industry,” he explained. “You often see those ads when you walk into a casino: ‘If you have a problem, maybe you should look for help.’ There are certainly plenty of ways that app developers could differentiate users who are just using their app frequently and people who are engaging in behaviors that might be self-destructive.”

So perhaps when you set about creating your product you jumped on this app addiction bandwagon entirely unaware of the potential harmful effects. Maybe you’re just a victim of your own misguided enthusiasm. You’d much rather foster engagement the right way -- and the long term, sustainable way -- by creating value and fostering a healthy relationship with your customers, not by enslaving them. But that healthy engagement only happens when you’re providing consistent value to your customers, and they engage with your product when they need to extract value. They’re in control. Addiction, on the other hand, dangles promises that more often than not go unfulfilled. Eyal’s model fosters internal triggers which become compulsions, driving users to seek a variable reward, and in so doing takes away their self control.

So, if you’re worried that you may be unwittingly creating a customer base of self-recriminating addicts, it’s time for a gut check. Following are some of the signs and symptoms that you may be fostering addiction, rather than healthy engagement, among your customers.

Broken Promises

If you only keep one concept in mind as you strive to ethically engage your users and steer clear of addictive behaviors, it is this:  If your users are consistently striving to extract value from your product, but continually failing to realize the full potential of what you promise your product can do, then they are trapped in a cycle of app addiction. 

All of the other tell tale signs flow from this main precept. The healthy version of this addiction maxim? Users consistently succeed in realizing the full potential of the value you’ve promised. That’s the ideal scenario -- and the only real path to long term, sustainable success.

With that in mind, read on for the other signs that you’re headed down the wrong path in your efforts to drive adoption.

You may be creating a customer base of addicts if … 

Your external triggers aren’t linked to value extraction. 

Your trigger -- whether it’s an email, an in-app notification or other trigger -- should be directly tied to the value extraction that you’ve promised your customer. If you’re triggering your customers for any other reason, just to get them to use your product, you may be planting the seeds of addiction.

Your external triggers have the ultimate goal of creating internal ones

In other words, you’re trying to create a compulsion. Eyal’s model cycles people through his four step process with the hopes of making step one, the trigger, become an internal compulsion. An internal compulsion like this is the same kind of unquenchable thirst felt by addicts.

Your triggers play on negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, or frustration. 

Addicts don’t only turn to their fix to feel a rush of pleasure. Often, the motivation is to stop physical or emotional pain. If you’re playing on their fears or anxieties in order to get them to interact with your app, you’re building your customer relationship on a foundation of negative emotions.

You offer variable rewards 

In the operant conditioning model, subjects (rat or human) are offered variable rewards. In other words, sometimes you’ll get what you want and sometimes you won’t. It’s been shown that this tantalizing possibility can in some cases actually make people (or rats) perform a behavior with even more intensity than if the reward were reliable. Not only is this a means to instill unhealthy addictive behaviors, it’s also a big lie. You’ve promised value to your users, and instead of delivering it consistently, you dole out the value intermittently to keep them coming back for more.

Your users stay hooked for awhile ... then they churn 

Even if you manage to addict users to your app, if you’re using Eyal’s model for a B2B product, eventually they’re going to churn and seek their fix elsewhere. That’s because variable rewards may (unfortunately) work with games, but if you’re not delivering consistent value in a B2B product, you can’t sustain a long term relationship with your customers.

The investment you require from users is a trap

To drive adoption in a healthy way, you want to set users up for success in the setup stage of adoption. This requires an investment on the part of your customers. Then you reward this investment with an early success in onboarding. Done well, this can catapult your users directly into frequent or avid usage. In contrast, Eyal’s model uses customer investment as a way to rope them in. It’s a disingenuous way to trap them -- they’ve put time and effort into their engagement, and they feel trapped. It’s just another way to “hook” them into an unhealthy relationship.

You don’t actually believe the product will improve the lives of your users

This is a red flag. If you don’t believe you’re going to improve your users’ lives, then by definition you don’t believe you’re providing value. Your only option is to try to hook your users and make them addicted to your app. Go back to the drawing board and create real value so you can foster a healthy customer base.

You experience unease at any point in the deployment

If your gut is trying to tell you something, step back and listen. Otherwise you may end up like Dong Nguyen, the creator of the Flapping Birds game. He became so consumed with guilt at the way users became hopelessly addicted to his game he took it off the market and apologized. He tweeted: “People are overusing my app :-( " The following day, he tweeted, "I will take 'Flappy Bird' down. I cannot take this anymore."

You’re making promises you are unwilling or unable to keep

Tied to the above, an addictive relationship is based on lies. You make promises .. sometimes you keep them, sometimes you don’t. But you aren’t providing consistent value.

Your customers are being forced to interact rather than choosing to interact when needed

Based on the “internal trigger,” or compulsion, users keep returning to your product in the hopes that this time they’ll get what they’re looking for. You see activity, and you think it’s all good. uUt your users feel the frustration and anxiety of the loss of self control that is addiction.

You keep blaming your customers for their problems

Your customers reach out to you (or your customer success team) when they’re frustrated. You spend more time reassuring them and talking up your product than you do actually helping them accomplish the job they need to do. Like any addiction cycle, you have ups and downs, but secretly you blame them for their problems. But the fact is, you’ve created the monster, and you can’t blame the victims. If you want a real relationship that leads to happy, avid users who will talk up your product, then do what you say you’re going to do: deliver value without subterfuge.

Bottom line, don’t enslave your users and hook them into an unhealthy addictive relationship with your product. Apart from the fact that it’s the wrong thing to do, they’ll only end up hating you in the end. Instead, if you want to create a healthy base of avid users, free them from their struggles and obstacles by delivering maximum value, efficiently and reliably.