Tristan Harris, an ex-design ethicist and product philosopher at Google, has slammed app creators for making smartphones as addictive as poker machines. According to Harris, When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.
At his former job at Google, Harris’s job was to study how the design, affordances and choice architectures on digital screens affects Google users. He helped invent and advocate for new designs that embed mindfulness into the screens people use.
Harris wrote in a recent Medium post, that just like magicians tech product designers try to exploit psychological vulnerabilities. Harris, who admits he’s an amateur magician, said he looks for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so magicians can influence what people do without them even realising it.
Product designers of apps are the same.
Harris describes it: “If you want to maximise addictiveness, all tech designers need to do is link a user’s action (like pulling a lever) with a variable reward. You pull a lever and immediately receive either an enticing reward (a match, a prize!) or nothing. Addictiveness is maximised when the rate of reward is most variable.”
It’s good for business to get people addicted to their phones, but Harris argues that companies like Apple and Google have a responsibility to “reduce these effects by converting intermittent variable rewards into less addictive, more predictable ones with better design”.
Another way to hijack people is to keep them consuming things, even when they aren’t hungry anymore. Harris sited Cornell professor Brian Wansink, who demonstrated in his Bottomless Bowls study that you can trick people into consuming heaps of soup without feeling hungry by automatically refilling the bowl. Participants who at from a bottomless bowls at 73 per cent more calories than those with normal bowls and did not feel any more satisfied than the group with the normal bowls.
Harris argues that tech companies exploit the same principle:
“News feeds are purposely designed to auto-refill with reasons to keep you scrolling, and purposely eliminate any reason for you to pause, reconsider or leave.
“It’s also why video and social media sites like Netflix, YouTube or Facebook autoplay the next video after a countdown instead of waiting for you to make a conscious choice (in case you won’t). A huge portion of traffic on these websites is driven by autoplaying the next thing.”