Addictive By Design

In the digital era of today we can see a lot of people are stuck on the digital screens most of their time. Let’s understand on how these products are not just habit forming but addictive in nature.

6 min readDec 15, 2021
Image credit techindiatoday

What cigarette, hard liquor, heroin and crack have in common is they are all addictive in nature. You simply don’t want to stop it. These are edible form of drugs available to us. In the world today the technology we are designing are shaping up and resulting in digital addiction.

I have seen people looking at the glaring screen constantly and for long hours. The digital screen device has become a trusted medium whom they can connect to the world of information. Smartphones are hard to put down. The buzzing of push notification, nagging red bubbles and endless feed are the perfect factors for creating attraction.

I would like to start this with a small true story of mine. I started my a series in Netflix, that night I did not literally sleep at night. I started it at 6pm and I forced myself to sleep at 3am in the morning. I was constantly thinking about the twist and turn this series had and what would be the possible turns that the series could take. In this example we have also an addictive factor in the story plot and also the credit goes to Netflix. Are we really designing for addiction? This is a serious topic and this also touches the roots of psychology, marketing, sociology, anthropology and more.

It’s not you. Phones are designed to be addicting.

Image Credit

Take a look at the Slot machine. This slot machine gaming makes more money in USA than baseball, movies and theme parks all combined. This is x3 to x4 times faster addictive than other gambling types. The pull to refresh feature in the mobile apps is a replication of same mechanism that the gambling have.

Today, lot of real life gambling mechanism has been implemented in digital devices. You can find common use on infinite scroll which push you to consume for information as you scroll but you can’t stop this.

“That means that we needed to sort of give you a little dopamine hit every once in a while because someone liked or commented on a photo or a post or whatever… It’s a social validation feedback loop… You’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology… [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”
Axios, Sean Parker, Former president of Facebook

Facebook game farmville

The famous game inside facebook named FarmVille, also has added addictive design factors into the game. FarmVille is a daunting game as it takes money (bitcoins), time and a lot of concentration to get started in FarmVille.

You have certain limited amount of money with limited amount of land. In this land you plow around 10 to 11 plots which needs 150 coins. You earn points by plowing plants which also you can buy them. The main thing here is the another day you can harvest your plantation. With this users are forced to open their computers and harvest their field. You can have competition in farming with your friends.

Farmers go up levels of competence, earning merit achievements as they climb the ladder of success from the lowly one acre plot to expansive estates. A FarmVille farmer must harvest, plow, and plant. This game is not intended to retain and spent your time on it instead it’s designed for addiction.

The Consequences

People who are addicted are enslaved by the engagement features we have designed in the product.

Today we have a lot of social media available to us. The most critical do not forget to mention is Facebook. There is also a pros and cons in building this great platform of product. But there are serious issues that arise with this as well.

48% of 18 to 34 years olds check facebook right when they wake up.
About 28% check their smart phones before getting out of bed.Source

Another product we can take a look into is TikTok. TikTok currently has a billion of users.The leaked document shown to the NY Times explains that in the pursuit of the company’s “ultimate goal” (growth of daily active users), it has chosen to optimize for two closely related metrics in the stream of videos it serves:

  • “retention” (whether a user comes back to the same type of content) and
  • “time spent.” (how long they look at a particular video relative to videos from other themes)

Ultimately, TikTok wants to keep you there as long as possible. Which means that the experience is designed to create addiction. The AI algorithm is smart enough to identify that the users can get bored with seeing the same stuff on a continuous loop. So the algorithms will start to test out related but different content to see if you like that and to keep you interested. Addiction only ever wants is to feed more.

“We’re the product. Our attention is the product being sold to advertisers.”
Justin Rosenstein (The Social Dilemma)

It’s not just the product there is some factor of device addiction seen in the users. In average roughly people check around 75 to 150 times a day. This would be roughly anywhere between five and ten times an hour.

Not just these application there are many more application that are converting addiction to money. It’s obvious that our devices are designed to keep us engaged but now the application designed is not just forming habit forming products but addictive in nature.

64% of the people who joined extremist groups on Facebook did so because the algorithms steered them there.
Internal Facebook report, 2018

What can be done

There is a definite solution to the all problem we face. Their might be some of the steps useful for you if you feel you are constantly using your device and you cannot keep it down.

  • Remove unused application to avoid mush distraction.
  • Turn off notification when you don’t need them.
  • Avoid social interaction through an application.
  • Make specific time schedule of using social medias.
  • Switch to grayscale in the mobile phone accessibility as color plays an important role in grabbing attention.
  • Restrict the mobile device home screen to only everyday tools.
  • Avoid using the apps that will lure into the mechanism of addiction.
  • Don’t feed yourself too much of information online.


It’s not just smartphones are creating a form of addiction its people themselves. They are not just designed to help us or change our behaviour or persuade or hooked instead it’s designed for addiction. People are creating the apps that gets mass hype and addictive in nature which adds fuel to the fire.

The use of the smart devices can manipulate your emotion. You might hear a good news, fake news, sad news so this directly impacts your emotion Building these intentional behaviour changing addictive applications are against or design ethics. This means empowering employees to apply ethical use principles such as human rights, privacy, safety, trustworthy, and inclusion in daily work. With ethical design we designers are responsible in maximizing the positive impacts of tech and minimizing any potential negative effects on society.

Addiction is a system, and it’s been designed. It’s we designers who are responsible in our design decision which might also change the human behavior, persuade and engage people, get hooked and trap them into the vortex of digital addiction.

We should not cheat our users and take the advantage turning them into a business customer instead evaluate every new decision based on those values instead of the harmful mental models we’ve allowed to shape our industry and practice ethical design.

Reference reading