Creating Users, Not Addicts

Designing for engagement without anxiety

We’re more anxious than ever before. Just typing that makes me anxious. Technology, for all of its benefits, can create a sense of claustrophobia. All of our devices make us feel like we’re trapped in a vast room of spinning plates. Persistently pondering which one will topple makes our hearts beat even faster.

As producers of digital media, we sit at an interesting intersection, where it seems like there’s always a fender bender about to happen. We create media, but we also consume media. We’re switching our hats in a never-ending rotation between producer and reader, designer and user.

I could go into the tired dopamine diatribe on how your smartphone has transformed you into a technology fiend, standing on the corner trying to score a hit. However, I’ll spare you because it’s simple: Technology is reshaping our brains. In real time we’re observing its effects, and in real time we’re suffering from its effects.

The numbers aren’t looking good. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders represent the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year.

Polling conducted by Common Sense Media showed that 59% of parents think their teens are addicted to their mobile devices, and 50% of teens agree with them, admitting that they do feel addicted to their mobile devices. Younger generations are entering the digital landscape feeling the weight of device addiction.

As designers, creators and users alike, what’s our responsibility when it comes to creating media for an addiction-prone culture?

The bottom line likes addicts

Here’s the pragmatic truth: Someone wants what we create, and we’re being paid to make it for them.

As designers, we are often creating media that is, at its core, engineered to persuade. We have an inherent responsibility in how we shape behavior.

But therein lies the rub: Addictive behavior is better for the bottom line. Drug dealers have known this for centuries. Is this model good for humans? Of course not. Addicted people are not free. Causing users to be addicted to your platform may create a consistent revenue stream, but it will never contribute to humanity’s greater good.

Pursuing responsible design

Design, in my mind, isn’t just color palette and typesetting; it’s every choice and consideration that informs how we make things for our clients.

Although we have the chance to influence the aesthetic qualities of the work we create, Design means that we must think bigger. The responsibility for good Design doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of designers; it’s up to everyone who creates and influences work for clients. Let’s think bigger, shall we?

Interface design, which comprises most of my daily work, can serve as a valuable example. Interfaces are intended to orient and navigate users. Users are trying to do something; what’s the most natural way for them to do it? Shaping this behavior isn’t a fatalistic pursuit. But how do we responsibly use design principles to direct users?

Well-worn design principles (e.g., Rams, Vignelli, Mau) provide critical guidance toward responsible design, and they also tell us a lot about how the human mind interacts with what it senses. We know more than ever that what we see, touch, hear and feel affects our perception and behavior.

These natural tendencies inform how we can play to our biological strengths but also surface shortcuts we can exploit. For example, it’s well known that color can influence mood and therein behavior. Knowing this, we could easily trigger an alarm response in our users just by making our bodies react before our reason. You see this often with audio cues. The sound of a smartphone vibrating on a table creates an automatic, visceral, anxious response in us. A simplistic two-note tone can make everyone in a quiet coffee shop lift their heads and frantically feel their pockets. Cues can make products feel more familiar, but they can be easily commandeered to create a manipulative, Pavlovian response in users.

Netflix, as an example, simultaneously encourages addictive behavior and tries to safeguard its users from such addiction. It’s a convenient example of what to do and what not to do.

Netflix encourages binge-watching by counting down to that next episode and autoplaying it for you without you even having to so much as shift from your couch. I’ve watched many a toddler go on a Daniel Tiger binge, unbeknownst to their parents, for this very reason. What’s funny about this convenience feature is that it breeds all kinds of bad behaviors while the platform attempts to offset itself with the “Are you still watching?” feature. After a handful of back-to-back episodes of The Office, we’re annoyed they even have to ask, but it is a good, momentary reminder that we’ve been watching a lot of TV.

Like many at Netflix, I’d assume, you may love and believe in what you’re currently designing. However, even thoughtful products can produce less than desirable outcomes. Your user experience may be meticulously mapped out to solve a problem for the planet’s greater good, but in the hands of your users, it can still cause addictive behaviors.

How now shall we design?

What do we do with all of this information? Countless articles, news segments and push notifications warn us about the dangers of technology — all delivered through the exact channel their contents warn us about.

So herein lies the question. Should society’s ever-evolving embrace of media impact what we make? I would argue that it has to. In that spirit, I’d like to offer several simple ways we can consider the call to responsible design.


  1. Slow down: Pay close attention to your own behavior and more importantly, to your responses to media you consume online.
  2. Talk to your users like people: Good information is accessible, digestible and often easy to implement with a little elbow grease.
  3. Cut out the jargon: You don’t sound professional; just silly. It hurts your users in the end.
  4. Advocate for your users: It’s your responsibility as a designer even when it hurts.

1. Slow down

Online interactions are built for efficiency and speed. We don’t even have to consciously choose to use our thumbs to scroll through experiences. Empathy is your best tool as a designer. Slow down and note how interfaces make you feel physiologically and mentally. Especially make note of the times the design or interactions in a platform cause anxiety. By experiencing these realities yourself, you can gain perspective on the pitfalls you will inherently create through your work.

Tangible exercise #1: Spend a week observing your online behaviors. After you finish a day online, write down some observations (preferably offline!). For example, how many times did you check your favorite sites? When and where did you open particular apps on your phone? Was it voluntary? Did the actions feels more compulsive than intentional? Was it based purely around routine, or was there something about the UX that hooked you back in?

2. Talk to your users like people

Anxiety, depression and addiction are often exacerbated or even accelerated by technology. We don’t have to study psychology or neuroscience to observe behavior and modify our practices for the better. Do user testing that always allows you to speak with your users rather than form distant assumptions about their behavior.

Tangible exercise #2: Evaluate how you conduct user testing. Is it an afterthought, or is it healthfully integrated in your design process? If you’re not already having face-to-face conversations with your user-testers, brainstorm ways you can eliminate the wall between you. Ask targeted questions about how they perceive that your UX affects them mentally.

3. Cut out the jargon

As someone who can barely speak his native tongue, this feels a bit awkward for me to say, but language matters. The marketing-speak we bring to the table molds how we consider the problems we’re trying to solve. When we throw around such words as conversions and KPIs, those metrics become mechanical. We turn human beings into data points. Use language that reflects your design goals and you humanize your practice in the process. When conversion becomes reaching out for help or contact a real person, we consider behavior more holistically and humanely.

Tangible exercise #3: Sit down by yourself or with a colleague you collaborate with. Evaluate your language. Make a list of phrases you often use with clients, paying close attention to the phrases you always have to over-explain or define. Discuss how you can cut out jargon and replace it will simple, helpful and educational language.

4. Advocate for your users

What happens when you’re designing something that you know could negatively impact the mental health of your users? What happens when you know the downward pressure of a project is screaming, “Let’s get ’em hooked!”? As designers, our chief role is to advocate well for our users. Speak well on their behalf even if doing so causes internal friction. Discuss when your good intentions and calls-to-action could easily become bad habits. Your product may be doing something amazing for society but creating bad habits as an unintended byproduct.

Tangible Exercise #4: Practice boldness. If it feels awkward, forewarn your colleagues that you’d like to become even bolder in how you advocate for your users within your organization and with your clients. You can be an advocate without being a jerk. Guide your teammates and clients through exercises, early in the process, that force them to slow down and think of future scenarios. Think about the good and the bad outcomes of your final product, always championing the human being at the other end.

A better way is possible. It just is. It will take more effort. It won’t be as efficient. It may even cost you more money. However, it could lead to a healthier society that isn’t preyed upon by the media they consume or the experiences they find online. Responsible design teaches us that there are real people in real places in real time behind everything we create.

Let’s strive to foster communities of engaged users—not hopeless addicts.

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