The Addiction Machines — The Smart Way to Join the Battle for User Attention

Martin Hoffmann
Apr 19, 2018 · 12 min read
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It was one of those evenings, when you decide to quickly watch an episode of this new series before going to sleep. Manhunt it was this time. While the series changes, the remainder of the evening follows a similar pattern. The first episode ends at the peak of excitement, hooking you in to watch the next one. And the next one. That evening we were lucky though. We managed to break free from Manhunt at around episode six. They had let the arc of tension drop once, which we shamelessly exploited to finally get some sleep.

There was a time when tv series were closed things. You would watch it once, and then you could rest for a week, with the delightful joy of anticipation for the next one.

Today, this has changed. And I am not talking about the technical capability to watch a whole season in a row. I am talking about network executives who try to hook us in, like digital drug dealers. They are not happy if we come back next week, they want us to stick with them now. Because that’s what provides them with an income. Once they have lost us, we will be gone for good.

The Digital Drugdealers

This pattern does not only apply to tv series, of course.

Facebook is the undefeated dopamine dealer number one in the internet attention battle. At the moment most of media attention is on how Facebook handles and markets our data. But this “distribution” of our data is only one part of the equation. The other are part is how Facebook “acquires” our data. I am talking about the psychological tools, which make us come back, the endless feed of news offering a fuel of dopamine, the ‘likes’ that are feeding our social status.

Most famously, Sean Parker, Facebook’s founding president explained in an interview that Facebook’s “thought process was ‘how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible? And that means that we need to give you a little dopamine here once in a while.”

In his blog, Brad Frost explains, how Facebook literally stalked him, when he tried to take measures to reduce the dopamine feed.

The traditional media companies may lack Facebook’s sophistication, yet they similarly aim to hook us in. Their most successful tools include a focus on emotional and attention drawing events combined with hyperbolic headlines. “He said, she said”, “shocking details”, or “10 simple ways to achieve X”. What gets lost along the way is often the broader context, the deeper connections between events. After all, an outrageous Trump tweet is a proven way to get readers’ attention. In contrast, a wider analysis of the dysfunctions across political structures, education, consumer psychology and media, which got him elected in the first place is harder to digest and to sell.

But Facebook and the media are only the most obvious players. Plenty of other players are around, many of whom operate more covertly.

Just recently I booked a hotel on A week before the trip I got an email from them, saying, “we realised you did not book breakfast. You can book it now for just € 25 per person”. So I am asking myself ‘who did realise this one week before my trip? Is their algorithm broken and did it forgot about informing me about breakfast while booking? Or did their customer service person have sleepless nights, worrying that I might starve on my holiday?’ In any case, I was sure I had already booked breakfast. So I checked back on their site and there it was, their offer included a big “breakfast” label. I had remembered correctly. But wait, it said “breakfast to be paid at the reception”. They got me.

If you study the site carefully, you will see plenty of interesting ‘features’. There always seems to be “someone” who just booked this offer. And then there are always “other people” looking at this offer at the same time. ‘Will they be first or will I get it?’ I am thinking. ‘How long can I still wait?’ Because, of course, this offer has been discounted two times. I feel drawn to the original prices. Is this what other sites will offer me when I wait too long, and let the other 8 people get the deal?

An article in the Globe and Mail cites App developer Chris Marcellino, stating that “smartphones hook people using the same neural pathways as gambling and drugs”.

Old ideas accelerated

Let’s face it, marketers’ and media’s efforts to get our attention are not new. Neither are the basic psychological needs they cater to.

Of course, network executives always have played with our attention. Since decades, they have fine-tuned the art of leaving us surprised and curious right before the commercial breaks. They always have been experts at knowing how to make sure that we stick with them.

What has changed is the extend with which they command our attention like a modern day Baron Münchhausen. Why? Because our attention has become the scarcest resource. As a result of this scarcity, our attention now is the most valuable currency out there. The production of goods has been democratised. It has become relatively easy to hit the market with a new product. This leads to more and more products and marketing messages hitting us consumers. This overflow of noise has turned our attention into the most valuable piece of real estate in the district of consumerism. They will do whatever necessary to break through that noise and grab us.

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What is also new is the plentitude of tools, which help them break through the noise. Facebook’s number one mission is to increase our time spent on their site, measured in Daily Active users. If they plan a new feature, they can easily A/B test this feature to see its effects on our behaviour. Similarly, there is plenty of research as well as tools available, telling businesses what works and what doesn’t. If you google for “best headlines”, Google will kindly provide you with access to 25 million articles on the topic. Also by now it is well known that for platforms, those users who are most active within the first weeks will remain the most loyal ones in the long-term. Hence we are facing a plentitude of welcoming on boarding videos, emails, and invitations to engage with other users.

Data is the new oil. And we pay with our Attention

The battle for our eyeballs gets heated. Consumers’ attention is becoming one of the key currencies’ of our economy. Businesses need to fight for it. Whatever product or service you offer, launching a product alone will not get you anywhere no matter how much value it provides. You also need to find a way to break through the noise to get a share of consumers’ valuable attention. There are many ways to do this, and of course, the first step is to build a valuable product about which people speak.

But then there are additional tools, which will be indispensable in the coming decades. Two of the most important ones are good and targeted copywriting and behavioural design. I regard copywriting as part of good behavioural design, so we will focus on the latter one.

Speaking of behavioural design; guilty as charged; you could see I that I have been working with your fears in the last sentences. By telling you what is indispensable, I have established that I am the authority which can save you your job, your reputation and everything else you care for. This, of course, with the intention to make you come back to this site whenever you need advice. But now, since I have been exposed, let’s move on.

At it’s core it boils down to behavioural change. Businesses ask users to do a certain behaviour, which is either in the interest of the business, of the user, or of both.

In the field of Behavioural Change, Stanford’s B.J. Fogg and his methodology are worthwhile having a look at. Fogg, among whose students was Instagram’s co-founder Mike Krieger, developed the Fogg Behaviour Model. The model also is a key component of Nir Eyal’s bestselling book ‘Hooked’ (see, apparently I am working with social proof now). The model builds on the three elements, Motivation, Ability, and Triggers to change people’s behaviours. Counter-intuitively, it’s not lack of motivation, but lack of ability or triggers what most often keeps people from changing a behaviour. Watch Lily Cheng from B.J. Fogg’s Stanford lab explain it by using Facebook’s news feed as an example:

The field of behavioural design is wide, and expert authors such as Dan Ariely or Daniel Pink are just two examples of further sources of information to help you implement the toolkit into your products.

Speaking of behavioural change; I recommend to add this to your regular reading routine. And if you want to walk the talk, then of course you will add a reminder to your calendar, which would be one of Fogg’s ‘Triggers’ to help you implement this new reading behaviour.

Applying the new toolkit — wisely

However, while behavioural design has become an indispensable toolkit, there are two ways in which you can apply this toolkit. You can either provide value for the user or you can use it to abuse errors in human psychology.

Before you choose, you should remember one thing: educated consumers are not dumb and they will quickly look through your intentions. Unless you aim to sell to idiots, the only way to apply this toolkit in the long-term is to provide value also to users, not only to your business.

Consumer’s sensitivity towards being manipulated is changing. We are able to learn. In the same way that we have learned to realise when somebody sells us a junk car, and in the same way we have learned to spot misleading headlines, we also have developed the ability to spot when a product or service tries to lock us in without providing value.

But not only our awareness is increasing. The whole culture is shifting. We’ve already seen enough of snake oil salesmen and we feel insulted whenever somebody tries to apply a new version of the old trick.

The website Dark Patterns is a consumer power freedom fighter who uncovers bad players. They lay out out various ways of manipulation. The site Time Well Spent forms a movement for dealing with our attention crisis.

Similarly, you don’t have to do a deep search to come across an article, which writes about Facebook’s addictive mechanisms.

Aligning the toolkit with your brand

But how to decide whether behavioural design provides value to consumers or not?

The answer is simple. Go back to basic product design. What are the user’s problems that you help them tackle and what are the goals that you help them achieve? In most cases this will already answer the question above. For I — as a user — want to quickly book a trip, without investing too much time searching and while knowing what I will pay. I want to have transparency over whether the price is cheap or not. Since I have a busy life I visit booking sites to reduce my investment of time and money. Well, we already know how that has been working out for me at

Staying with ecommerce, this video hilariously illustrates how Amazon’s Alexa is trained to provide us with purchase opportunities. But she is not fully up to the task of helping us in our daily lives.

But let’s look back at the tv series. Manhunt was well done and a very logical series. Yet for a great number of series the quality of the overall experience tends to decline once producers try to hook us into the next episode. At some point they sacrifice the overall logic of the storytelling in order to keep the attention span high. And when we just thought the crime case was solved, another bad guy comes out of nowhere. The main character didn’t see him coming and we didn’t see him coming. Why? Because it makes no sense. But it increases the short term tension, of course.

In other cases however, such as Facebook’s feed, the answer of whether a behavioural tool ads value to the product may be less clear. Facebook’s news feed helps Facebook, but does it enrich our lives? After all, the company claims to help us stay informed, and sometimes it does.

Here it helps to dive into the human motivations on which an offering builds. What is the users’ motivation behind the goal that you help them achieve? Do you help them achieve mastery of something, do you provide them with connections, or do you satisfy their curiosity by providing a dopamine stimulation? Now compare this with what you stand for as a business, and what type of value you want to provide. Does it match?

Once you have nailed this down you should categorise into extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. The name indicates; extrinsic rewards are rewards, which are external, in broad terms rewards caused by society. Examples are monetary rewards for doing a task, whether it’s parents bribing the child, or the salary of an employee. Status symbols, such as titles, medals or new clothes are also an extrinsic reward.

Intrinsic rewards on the other side are internal, such as the satisfaction and fulfilment that comes from mastering a new hobby or the wellbeing of enjoying the nature.

Here is the essential part that you should align with your brand values: extrinsic rewards are short lived. Once we get them, we need more to stay happy. We need more money, more status to keep the level. In addition, extrinsic rewards get in the way of intrinsic rewards. People are already intrinsically motivated. But once a child is bribed to go to school it’s hard to feel the internal pleasure of achievement.

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If you want to go into more detail of this, read author and gamification pioneer Yu-kai Chou. Borrowing from search engine optimisation terminology, he writes from a design-perspective and distinguishes between white hat vs black techniques. White hat builds mostly on intrinsic motivations while black hat builds mostly on extrinsic motivations.

Having said all of this, that doesn’t mean extrinsic motivations are always bad. Sometimes it may make sense to build on them. Yet you should be aware of the type of — long-term — value you want to provide your customers with and whether a short-term stimulus aligns with such a value proposition.

Fashion brands by nature build on extrinsic motivations, that’s core of their business. They help us achieve social status. We would not expect them to cater to our desire for deeper meaning. For them, the unit economics of the business model may even require them to build on extrinsic rewards because they need repeat customers, coming back every fashion cycle to fuel their status needs.

But if your mission is to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”, such as Facebook’s recent mission relaunch, then over-stressing extrinsic motivations may be a thin line to walk on.

Facebook’s newsfeed provides us not primarily with connection and community. What stands out as its key feature is a short term dopamine fuel that makes us come back regularly. The Sean Parker interview, warning that Facebook was deliberately designed to exploit human vulnerability, might not have caught as much attention as it did, had he spoken about the Tobacco business. But since Facebook’s success is built on connecting us with other humans, his statement, saying ”God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains” has gone viral being quoted by numerous media outlets.

The tools of persuasion should be in your 21st century business toolkit. But use them in line with what your users need and with what your brand stands for. Don’t use the tools for tools sake, use them to achieve a goal that enhances your product in the long-term. Hire UX designers who shares your values.

B.J. Fogg provides us with a simple example of how to apply these tools in useful ways. Through his tiny habits he helps people change their behaviour, whether they want to quit smoking or go running frequently.

Here is my challenge for you. For the next week, consider yourself a lab rat. Monitor, how websites, products and services try to play with your human motivations. Add each occurrence to a list. Then categorise the list items into how they helped you and how they helped the business, which offered the product or service. After the week, go through the categories and determine where there was alignment between your goals and the vendors’ goals. Think about what has left you with a positive impression and what has put you off. Over time you should increase your sensibility for the usefulness of various attention mechanisms.

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