3 reasons why I’m an addict

08 September, 2014 by Toby Wilkins | DesignUser Experience

I’m addicted… and so are you. We’re all addicts. Candy Crush, Facebook, ASOS, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Tinder… you name it our favourite products are addictive, some destructively so... Just like drugs, all habit-forming products work by playing to the ‘feel good’ chemical reward receptors in the brain. When creating digital experiences we must understand and stimulate the ancient cerebral wiring that triggers action, engagement and that has made our species thrive.

The word addiction has negative connotations and understandably so, as it represents a loss of control in one’s actions. It’s an undeniable fact however that sticky products are also the most successful as habitual engagement drives achievement across a spectrum of key KPIs. Designing to maximise engagement and create habits is therefore critical in competitive markets otherwise your product will likely suffer from low engagement… and potentially die. In this blog I’ll briefly touch on why people get addicted, my three golden rules to induce digital addiction and why with this power comes responsibility.


Rule 1: Understand what reward people are looking for and maximise it  

Every single conscious action we do, we do in the hope we get a reward. A reward is a positive feeling triggered by chemicals in our brains. At an aggregate level I tend to group rewards into three broad types. Social, substantive and personal...

Social rewards

Why are we inherently social animals? When we were cavemen, we used to exist in tribes of up to 150 people. Our social status in the tribe would directly impact our chances of survival & reproduction – if we were respected, we would be defended and lock down a healthy mate. If we did something stupid or were an outsider, then we would be shunned and may die. This instinct has not yet changed in our brains through the millennium. Our brains seek out rewards that make us feel accepted, important, attractive, and included. It is these rewards that are the primary drivers of social networking. With each tweet and post, users seek social validation and acceptance. We compare ourselves to others with services such as Klout putting a number on our level of influence…

Substantive rewards

Our direct need for survival is even more crucial. Acquiring physical things, such as food and supplies was even more important than the approval of our tribe. It is an instinct that has helped us survive for thousands of years. Today in the western world, where we once hunted for food we now hunt for deals and information to improve our standard of living. We now open emails from ASOS because we hunt for new products, read BBC breaking to understand and predict the world around us & go to work every day so that we can put delicious food on the table and achieve the financial ability to hunt for more rewards.

Personal rewards

Finally, we get reward from personal gratification. We love novel sensory stimulation... fast cars, flashing signs & cool music. It’s why babies put everything in their mouths… Empathy with others also comes into this category; we get reward from seeing those we love do well. We also get pleasure from mastery and completion of the world around us. It’s why we learn guitar or play flappy bird; we love to master and complete things. Gamification, as a trend, is an attempt to grab this desire to master something and apply it where it doesn’t naturally occur (FYI - see my post on Gamification here).

Depending on your personality type and a host of other characteristics you will be more inclined to hunt for some reward types over others. This differentiation is an extremely interesting and complicated topic (maybe for another blog). In order to appeal to the widest audience the most addictive products combine these three types of rewards thus increasing their collective strength.

For example, the biggest reward of using Facebook is social (validation), maximised through the fact that our entire friend network is on the site. The fact that you can find out interesting information makes it even more compelling to use (substantive), and theaddition of notifications and funky sounds plays on the personal ‘sensory stimulation’ rewards as well.

Your business may lend itself naturally to one type, maximise this as best you can but also infusing other types to make the action more addictive and hence more likely to create a habit.


Rule 2: Minimise effort

Consider the two examples below… which one gives the greater level of reward?

Going to the gym for an hour

  • People will think you fit in and respect you (social)
  • You will feel a sense of achievement and progression (personal)
  • You will likely live longer, find a mate and be more productive (substantive).

Watching ‘Storage Hunters’ on Dave for an hour

  • Might provide some new information (substantive)
  • May lift your mood (personal)

When comparing the post action rewards, going to the gym is the clear winner because it has far larger social, personal and substantive benefits than watching an hour of TV. So why are we not in the gym all the time? The answer is because going to the gym is bloody hard work and takes physical effort. It’s super easy to flick on the TV and hey you might get a little reward.

Effort is a blocker to completing an action, a sort of sunk cost that must be overcome. Actions that are harder to complete have to award bigger potential rewards in order for you to bother to do it. For example working out, going to work or even upping the difficulty in a game are actions that require large effort but offer big rewards. Some people still do them because the reward is so big, but not everyone does because of the effort and people take the negative consequences… getting fat whilst watching storage hunters.

It is therefore important that we understand we must ‘balance the level of effort with the potential reward’. If it took 10 minutes to logon to ASOS we probably wouldn’t do it, but if it took 10 minutes to logon to a website that instantly gave you £50 we probably would!

If the reward from your action is quite small, there are a few factors that can be optimised to lower effort;

  • Make it quicker – If an interaction is quicker to do it is easier (i.e. clicking rather than calling someone)
  • Make it cheaper – If something is free it requires less effort than a financial investment
  • Make it take less brainpower – If you don’t have to engage your brain the effort is lower
  • Make it take less physical effort – If something is physically easy to do it reduces the effort required
  • Make it socially accepted – if something is accepted socially then the user has to think less before doing an action and is unlikely to have reservations
  • Reduce negative side effects – if an action also has negative side effects it makes the user less likely to do it – e.g. your conscious telling you not to eat cake!


Rule 3: Make rewards variable

In the 1950s B.F. Skinner conducted a study called the variable schedule of rewards. Skinner observed that lab mice responded most voraciously when they were rewarded at random instead of in a predictable pattern. In the test he set up two boxes full of mice one called variable and one normal. In the variable version, the mice would press a button and sometimes they’d get a small treat, sometimes a large treat, and occasionally nothing. In the normal box, the mice received the same reward every time they pressed the button. The mice in the variable reward box pressed the button compulsively, whereas the mice in the second box would only hit the button when they were actually hungry.

Dr Luke Clark, in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Cambridge ran a study building on this imaging the brains of gamblers whilst they played roulette. He found that the reward channels within the brain were most stimulated not when the subject won, but when they almost won (i.e. their ball fell in and out of the segment they picked). Problem gamblers often interpret near misses as evidence that they are mastering the game and that a win is on the way…

We crave predictability and struggle to find patterns, even when none exist. Variability is the brain’s cognitive nemesis and our minds attempting to find cause and effect becomes a priority over control functions such as moderation.

Think about some addictive products,

Facebook - Facebook’s level of reward varies with each scroll or post – you don’t know what you’re going to find or the amount of social validation (through likes & comments) you will get when you post.

Tinder – With each swipe you don’t know how attractive you’ll find the next person. They may be your soulmate or totally uninteresting… Sometimes they like you back and sometimes they don’t. This adds another layer of variability making the app more addictive.

Therefore making sure that users don’t always achieve the reward they are hunting for will make a product far more addictive.


Use the psychology of habits responsibly

I can’t stress enough that addiction should be handled with responsibility. Is it really good for people to be addicted to your products or services? Some would say that Facebook is improving people’s lives; others would say that it is ruining them and it’s time for a detox. I would be morally against a game that rewarded you with a McDonald’s cheeseburger when you complete a level, even though it would be an addictive product. A product or service should foster positivity over negativity and it’s important we consider the negative effects too. Psychological triggers and addiction change our behaviours and should not be taken lightly; it has made Facebook a $300bn company…

If you’re interested in this topic a great guy to follow is Nir Eyal, a behavioural psychologist out of Silicon Valley. His blog at Nir and Far and book ‘Hooked’ make great reading.

At Deloitte Digital, we pay careful homage to the psychology behind engagement at every stage of the digital creation process. It is this focus that helps us co-deliver some of the most innovative and habit-forming digital experiences hand in hand with our clients.


Want to chat further? Email me or tweet to @twilkoe