Big Smile, No Teeth: Your favourite app is probably manipulating you


  • Living
  • Monday, 29 Oct 2018

We're addicted to our mobile phones. Or more specifically, we’re addicted to our apps.

Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, these apps are all trying to get us to spend as much time as possible with them. They’re like a clingy boy/girl friend. Using every trick in the book to make sure they soak up all our free time. But unlike the aforementioned clingy relationship, we don’t grow to resent these time-obliterating apps – instead, we want more, more, more.

And that’s because these apps are designed to make us feel that way. Luckily, clingy partners usually aren’t that switched on to pull such a masterful Jedi mind trick on us.

But these apps, and increasingly all our interactions, are meticulously designed. Every experience is curated so that we feel exactly what the app’s developer wants us to feel in any given situation. This isn’t, in itself, a bad thing. Focusing on the user experience and designing a product or service for us is good. This is the very thing that made Apple billions and elevated Steve Jobs to genius and not just an elitist spectacled man in a black turtleneck.

Jason Godfrey's Big Smile No Teeth column says we're addicted to apps on our phones
File photo of an “App Planet” sign at the Mobile World Congress in Spain. Even back in 2010, mobile phone operators knew how important apps would be to their business. Photo: Reuters

Jobs and Apple took complicated technology and made it simple to understand. Graphic user interface, the simplicity of the first iPod ... sure, I’m not the biggest fan of Apple but they did a great job of helping tech make the leap to the masses. This is a great example of design being used to cater to us, the users.

But now that everyone is catering to users, it’s not enough. Designers are looking for ways to make us want to use their product whether we want to or not and they’re using the psychology of addiction.

Video game designers have been doing this for years. Games like World Of Warcraft gripped their users like a crack addiction, hence it’s nickname “world of warcrack”. I too found myself in its clutches. I played for hours on end until one day I realised I was stressing to get home so I could hit the mountain regions to farm for herbs so I could make a bunch of potions and sell them for cash. Cash I would use to advance my herb collecting and potion-making business. Then I realised I was rushing home to work a job. In a virtual world. I should’ve been so focused on my job in the real world.

But after this experience, I looked into why I was so caught up in a game and found two reasons. The first was I valued the in game currency – clearly, I was returning to work a virtual job – and second was the use of the variable reward schedule. Which is definitely applicable to today’s apps.

The variable reward schedule is the most addictive of reward schedules. It means you get rewarded at random times. You don’t know when you will get rewarded but it happens frequently enough that you stick with an activity, constantly waiting for the next reward. In other news, this is the same mechanism used in slot machines to keep people dropping cash into them.

In World Of Warcraft that reward was levelling up, completing quests, finding items, achieving milestones, etc. I never knew when the next thing I would achieve would happen but it wouldn’t be long.

These concepts are applied to all games. So if you’re wondering why you can’t get off your phone playing some silly game with dropping fruit, look for these two traits.

When it comes to apps, one of the simplest things designers do is keep the content coming.

In Facebook, there is the endless scroll. Where you can literally scroll down and the content will never end. It will just keep loading into infinity. This isn’t done for users, this is done to keep us on their platform longer.

This is demonstrated in the famous bottomless soup bowl experiment where participants who were unknowingly eating from self–refilling bowls ate 73% more soup that those eating from normal bowls. The empty soup bowl gives a cue to stop. But if there is no cue, we will continue to consume. It’s the same with apps.

Instagram is also guilty of this with their stories feature that will just play into the next user’s story and so on and so on.

With non-stop cues, users are encouraged to continue using their apps. And the more time we spend on their apps, the more valuable we are for their ad sales.

You know what? It’s time for ethical design. Especially in apps. We shouldn’t be putting traits we know are addictive into apps. I’d say the social aspects and validation that comes from apps like Instagram and Facebook are addictive enough. There are hints that we are moving to a more ethical design, but in the meantime, do be aware that your favourite apps are manipulating you.

Jason Godfrey's biggest career advice from a photographer was "Big smile. No teeth." He works in fashion, television, and his latest book "Catwalk Fail" is out now. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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