Technology and Questions of User Manipulation

Are there ethical issues involved in designing digital products to ‘hook’ the user? Although this may sound similar to ways of grabbing mindshare in other industries, technology is different because of how pervasive it is today. Do the solutions lie within the industry or outside it?

Recently, the digital experience of an aunt got me thinking about the pitfalls for those who wander in without sufficient orientation. She had no real interest in technology or social media until her daughter created a Facebook account for her. All was well until she discovered the online game of Farmville. Within weeks, what started out as mild curiosity in the game grew into full-blown addiction. Soon she began passing up social interactions so as not to lapse in tending to her goats or planting corn. While her digital farm was thriving, her offline life was not. Luckily for her, her family recognized the warning signs of digital overdose and were able to persuade her to cut back.

My aunt is another data point in the evidence building up in this area. Based on this evidence, psychiatrists and other mental health specialists now view digital addiction as a real disorder that is linked to other psychological ailments, including depression, anxiety and social withdrawal.

But is it any different from older and less scrutinized forms of technology addiction? There was a time several years ago when my uncle, growing up in a small town in Karnataka, got a transistor radio from his father. From the time it was passed onto him, my uncle was hooked – spending countless hours listening to music and commentary and even gathering his friends around him for a daily audio fix.

So then why are we so concerned about the effects of digital in our lives? Isn’t it just the modern equivalent of my uncle’s transistor?

Part of the reason we worry about technology today is because of how pervasive it is. We cannot realistically cut it out from our lives. We realize that some form of detox may be beneficial from time to time, but a complete disconnect is not realistic given that our productivity depends on staying connected. Our modern day lives, for better or for worse, are wedded to technology. According to one of many studies, the average person checks her phone 150 times a day, or every six minutes. It is no wonder that phones have been called the cigarettes of this era.

And this is not likely to change. That is because most, if not all digital products are built with a view to maximizing both the number of users as well as the time that each of them spends on the product. The goal, ultimately, is to snare the user in an endless loop of triggers and rewards. In a Silicon Valley bestseller called ‘Hooked’, author and entrepreneur Nir Eyal maps out the design process needed to build engaging products. As Eyal describes it, a mix of internal and external triggers can combine in a perfect storm that keeps drawing the user back into its eye.

Gamification is a big part of how many digital products – apps and platforms – are built today. It depends on adding whatever it takes – notifications, rewards, status – to drive user engagement and loyalty. And as companies continue to build data on individual usage patterns and behavior, they will be able to refine their strategies to make exiting harder and more costly for any given user.

This brings us to a key question: is this unacceptably manipulative? Design ethicists have argued that it is time for the technology industry to reflect on current strategies to see if and where they cross the line. Others believe that an externally developed and enforced code of ethics may be the solution.

Even in a book dedicated to building engaging (and potentially addictive) products, Nir Eyal does probe the ethical issues involved. He proposes a Manipulation Matrix as a way for technologists to assess how their products fare in terms of their influence on users and impact on society.

While this is a worthwhile debate, I am not convinced that the solutions proposed are entirely executable or sustainable.

We cannot depend on the technology industry to provide a path to digital balance. This is because, despite their best intentions, that is not who they are or what is encoded in their DNA. For them, reversing tracks or even slowing down will endanger them. And which business wants that? So, no matter what Zuckerberg says about saving the world or how committed Pichai may be to doing good, Facebook and Google still want more and more users spending more and more time on their platforms.

The answers, I believe, lie outside technology and with users. With greater awareness of the problem, users can assess their own digital habits and take steps to modify them where needed. For real awareness to set in, we have to start young and this is where schools come into the picture. Today’s parents are grappling with the right way to sensitize their children to the issue since they are still trying to understand all the implications and dangers of unrestricted usage. But the younger generation that is born into this digital-driven world will understand it more intuitively as long as schools provide the right orientation.

We should also look at forming groups or councils within cities and towns to disseminate information and build awareness around this issue. These could be comprised of mental health experts, educators as well as technologists who can provide recommendations and counseling based on the latest research in the area. This will enable people to come up with better and more effective ways to place limits – for themselves, their children and other vulnerable people in their circles.

At some level, we may be hardwired for addiction. And what we are seeing play out with technology is something we have seen in many other areas as well. For example, consider how Coke has tried to edge out – successfully in many cases – its prime competition of water and milk from the daily regimens of consumers. Under pressure, Coke has admitted that its sugar-laden drinks are not entirely good for people but that doesn’t stop it from trying to embed its name and logo in the larger public subconscious.

Technology is a double-edged sword. It offers a whole host of benefits to users – benefits that span information and learning, apart from entertainment. We can’t withdraw into a cave and forgo all of this. But we can take a step back from our phones every now and then. If we can also ignore its beep as we walk by, we may have finally figured out a way to beat its hold on us.

Anil Reddy is the founder and Design Director at Lollypop, a boutique design studio.