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Why Are Sobriety Apps so Ugly?

Today’s design aesthetic is minimalist and millennial-friendly. Why are sobriety apps excluded?

Tyler Watamanuk
Oct 23, 2018 · 6 min read
Credit: tommaso79/iStock/Getty Images Plus

There’s a sameness permeating much of today’s design aesthetic: monochromatic hues, bold typography, and interfaces that are easy on the eyes and even easier to use. Over the past few years, this ubiquitous — and arguably now monotonous — minimalist style has come to dominate websites, apps, logos, commercials, billboards, and subway ads. From e-commerce startups selling everything from electric toothbrushes (Quip) to period-proof underwear (Thinx), the aesthetic is seemingly inescapable.

Except in one category: sobriety.

The majority of sobriety-based apps are ugly and clunky and lack the veneer of glossy modernism and effortless usability that coats the other apps and websites we use on a daily basis. They feel of a different era, either cheaply designed or out of date, often possessing the aesthetic quality of the internet’s early aughts.

This isn’t to say there aren’t several sobriety and recovery apps available; in fact, there are plenty, and they are wide-ranging — it’s just that most are unattractive and unappealing. It’s surprising, considering that approximately 40 million Americans meet the clinical criteria for addiction involving nicotine, alcohol, or other drugs, according to the Center on Addiction at Columbia University.

Apps have become a part of modern sobriety. I downloaded one when I got serious about getting sober, and I know plenty of people who use them as well. It’s not that anyone is especially excited about a particular sobriety app, but many sober people, whether they’re in a program or not, have them on their smartphones.

“There is more and more stigma being removed around mental health, but I feel like substance abuse is not there yet.”

There are straightforward counters that track sobriety and provide daily reminders of inspiration, like I Am Sober and Sober Tracker. Then there are more robust options like Daybreak, a support-based online program that offers an app with a community aspect and the option for one-on-one chats with a health coach. There’s even an app based on the gold standard of recovery programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, called 12 Steps Companion, with writings from the iconic Big Book and other features related to the group’s 12-step process. Some of these apps are better designed than others, but none are directly comparable to, say, Talkspace, a popular online therapy app that recently hit more than 1 million paying users.

Why hasn’t a beautifully designed sobriety app been built yet?

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Screenshots of SoberTool, an app for alcoholism and addiction recovery help. Courtesy of author.

“I’m not going to pretend to know the exact answer,” says Emmett Shine, executive creative director for New York–based Gin Lane, an agency that specializes in branding and design for emerging startups. “But I still think there is a stigmatization around profiting off recovery and treatment.” Shine also cites the high costs of producing best-in-class digital design, noting that many government-funded initiatives and nonprofit businesses in the recovery space simply don’t have the capital to hire the industry’s top talent.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to make money from a sobriety app or that there isn’t a market for a well-designed one.

The top-rated sobriety and recovery apps make their money in similar ways to other popular apps. Some are free to use and display native banner advertisements or offer in-app purchases to unlock premium features; others charge a flat or monthly fee. As previously mentioned, approximately 40 million Americans meet the clinical criteria for addiction. Another 80 million fall into a category known as “risky substance users,” meaning they use alcohol and other substances in ways that threaten public health and safety. That’s well over 100 million people who could benefit from a well-designed app offering support for alcoholism or substance abuse. This is not a niche category.

“There is more and more stigma being removed around mental health, but I feel like substance abuse is not there yet, especially with the opioid epidemic,” says Keeley Teemsma, a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist who treats addiction issues. “I’m not sure I could imagine anyone advertising an app [for addiction treatment] on the subway.”

For introverts and those who struggle with social anxiety, it can be tough to seek a sponsor or a support circle outside the structure of meetings.

Make no mistake: A well-designed app isn’t going to magically make anyone overcome their addiction or suddenly master sobriety. But it would be a disservice to underestimate the positive effects that a well-designed app could have on someone’s recovery.

I remember being newly sober and raw, aimlessly opening the sober tracker on my phone. Sometimes I’d just stare at the numbers of days I had; seeing the number looking back at me made it feel more real. I’d tap around within the app, and the rudimentary interface would expand to display a quote about a certain step or tell me to do something tacky, like look at myself in the mirror and say something positive. It was cheap and kitschy, but in those restless moments between meetings, it was all I had. For introverts and those who struggle with social anxiety, it can be tough to seek a sponsor or a support circle outside the structure of meetings.

Anyone who has tried to find an A.A. meeting online is taken to a corner of the internet that looks decades old. It’s hard for me not to notice the contrast between my sober tracker and the A.A. meeting finder and almost everything else I use on my phone. When an app feels cheap and flimsy, it makes it feel inherently less legitimate. Who would trust a poorly designed banking app or an outmoded app for their health insurance?

There’s a false idea that alcoholics and addicts are people living at the frays of society. But the disease affects all walks of life and doesn’t discriminate against gender, race, or social status. While addiction and substance abuse certainly exist in extremes, plenty of high-functioning professionals struggle with addiction. It affects people who care about design and use technology on a daily basis — and it also affects those who don’t.

Good design isn’t just about making something look nice. It makes ideas feel more accessible and communicates concepts in ways that are easier for people to understand. Design thinking, a creative practice that continues to trend up, subscribes to the notion that any design concept should start from a place of empathy. Great designers should understand their end user and think about their needs to make a product that’s intuitive, hyperfunctional, and enriching.

So, who will do it? The sobriety and recovery space differs from other sectors — like, say, therapy, primary care, or meditation — that have been disrupted by design and technology. Much of the space is informed by A.A.’s 12-step program and its decades-old philosophy, which may offer clues as to why nobody has dared to change or challenge it. With an estimated 2 million members, A.A. is deeply ingrained in America’s sobriety and recovery culture.

It’s hard to imagine someone with the gusto of a young, brash tech entrepreneur announcing that their new app is going to change the way people get sober. But one could imagine how disruptive A.A.’s Big Book must have felt when it was first published all the way back in 1939. In 2018, every corner of our lives is being disrupted by technology with more seamlessly designed ways to do things better. Why not this one?

Tyler Watamanuk is a writer and producer of things. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Vice, McSweeney’s, and others. http://tylerwatamanuk.com

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