Habit or Addiction

After reading Hooked by Nir Eyal, which I highly recommend, I really began to think about the difference between a habit-forming application and an addiction. Eyal brings the topic up in his book, and there is even an ethical chapter at the end that discusses the use of his “hook model.”

In brief, organizations and people can use the hook model to build habit-forming applications, but if twisted, the whole concept can be manipulated into creating technological addictions instead. But I won’t debate that here, especially because there are so many good learnings in it, I would never want to stifle the proliferation of valuable information.

Let’s dive back into habit and addiction, a topic that technology is starting to address more and more as it matures into its teenage years. Habit is, with gross oversimplification, when the brain has certain synapses fire, given a trigger, causing a person to take action in a certain way. This action is continued every time the synapses are triggered, which could be once a week, every day, multiple times a day, etc. For example, every morning when my alarm goes off, I complete the same tasks in the same order in order to prepare myself for the day. I don’t really worry that I’ll forget something because as long as I stay on autopilot I always end up on the same train at the same time with everything I need. It’s clockwork. But how is this process different from addiction? I go through this process every morning, and I feel gross if I forget to brush my teeth or stupid if I leave my work badge at home. Yet neither of these attributes are addictive qualities, hopefully, everyone feels gross if they forget to brush their teeth (no offense to people who don’t brush their teeth in the morning).

Again, grossly oversimplifying, we might start considering teeth brushing an addiction if no matter how much you brush your teeth it never feels clean, so you are brushing in excess of 3 times a day, which starts to impede on your ability to interact with the rest of the world in a healthy, productive way. This is an addiction because the craving to clean your teeth has overcome any other activity that you might encounter. Your teeth brushing is disrupting and even controlling your daily life.

Now let’s apply this foundation to technology as a whole. When I get on the train in the morning to go to work, which is approximately a 15-minute ride into the city, literally everyone has their heads down, staring at their phones. All 45-ish people in the same car are silent, either reading, scrolling, or tapping on their phone. And when I stopped being on my phone to realize this fact, it became freaky. That train ride is essentially the scene from WALL-E where all the humans are chatting with other people through their screens, even if that person is sitting right next to them, which they would never know (look it up on youtube - it’s worth it). But if I asked any of those people, on the train with me, if they thought they were addicted to technology, I’m sure they would say no. And if I continued by asking, then why do I see you always on your phone on the train in the morning, they might respond by saying that they are checking emails to get ready for work, or the train would be awkward if I wasn’t on my phone, or even, that’s what everyone does on the train in the morning. These answers are symptoms or excuses for why people are on their phones. The truth is, we jump on our phones on the train in the morning because we have been conditioned to do so, which has been emphasized over and over again by our routine to check content and further pressured by everyone else around us, reinforcing the action and creating a habit. But is this just a habit or is it an addiction?

If we look at checking our phones on the train in the morning as an isolated event, it could definitely be considered a habit. I know that I still partake in this dystopian event. But, when we zoom out and look at an individual’s interactions with their phone throughout the day, the truth emerges. Due to the content on our phones, like Facebook, Snapchat, games, etc, we, as individuals, have developed cravings. These cravings make us stop participating in our physical lives and, instead, we interact with our phone content, or better yet, our “phone life.” These cravings make us want to check what’s new on our feed, what likes we received, what new stories have been posted, and what the next level is. This is an addiction. And it’s evident, it is even happening to you. For example, have you ever felt a vibration in your pocket, so you checked your phone only to realize that no vibration occurred? This is known as a “phantom vibration,” and it is triggered by an urge we have to know what’s going on. Therefore, our minds change any sensation in our pockets into the vibration we use as a sign to check our phones. We have stopped controlling our technology and have started to let our technology control us. The only difference between our society and Skynet (from The Terminator, duh), is that it’s not an AI that is controlling us. Rather, it is organizations, large and small, that are well funded with really smart designers, developers, and businessmen and -women that are willing to manipulate us for higher margins. This is the world we live in.

Wait, wait, I am a designer and I am not trying to manipulate anyone. And I know that the company I work for is doing a lot of good. But in order to stay afloat, with so many other competitive organizations always trying to grab user attention, the projects I end up working on, along with so many other professionals, have one purpose: persuasion. Persuade users that they have no reason to go anywhere else, that they should constantly come back to us, that we are where people need to start and end their day. We unintentionally create intentional addiction -- take that in for a moment.

As designers, it is our responsibility to be asking the hard questions that no one else will ask, the whys? Why do we need to make products addictive in order to make a profit? The problem is we still need to be employed to make the impact we want to see on the world. We can’t just be going around challenging our VP’s, that is a recipe for disaster. So how can we work with our organizations to continue to fulfill our service and turn a profit without sucking people into obsession? How do we make money without making the world a Facebook addict, or a gaming addict, or a phone addict? Do we eliminate infinite scroll, do we stop simplifying, do we define more intention and stop with our minimum viable product (MVP), what is it? These are the hard questions that I have been asking myself. Maybe someone has a good answer, but I haven’t found it yet.

As a technological society, this is the first time we are encountering these issues. As designers, we need to help technology get through its awkward years, so that technology, as a whole, can mature to the next phase. We can start by defining where we draw our personal lines between habit and addiction. Then we can take a step back to understand how we can help our users form better habits, without profiting purely from addiction. It’s time for us to mentor technology, and guide users, into a more grown-up phase, which will include more habits and less addiction.