How to Design an Addictive Product

I Used to Solve Problems, Now I Try to Create Them

Jeff Davidson
The Startup
Published in
9 min readJan 11, 2018


Most of us think of design as making something more functional, intuitive, comfortable, and ultimately more desirable. In a lot of cases, this is the purpose of design. To create happier humans by making daily tasks less cumbersome. But what if making things easier doesn’t actually make us happier? What if the key to happiness is actually by fostering challenge? When are we supposed to make things easier, and others difficult? These are the questions every product designer and entrepreneur should ask, because understanding fundamental systems of motivation is the key to creating fulfilling products and services that ultimately enrich lives.

In light of the new and old science on motivation, we — the examining population — are forced to ask critical questions that society as a whole should work through. Consider this article an addition to the epistemological shift — one that I feel is long overdue. The following seven sections will outline a brief history of the phenomenon known as intrinsic motivation and/or the seeking system. I will highlight how products such as the television, Facebook, and the internet all satisfy the seeking system and are hugely successful because of it. The article will close with examples of how companies create addictive products that strike both the seeking system, alongside the social-affective reinforcement system to create viciously engaging products that require minimum creative investment. All of these reasons makes intrinsic motivation and social conditioning an extraordinarily economically viable topic of study, one that every living person should be aware of.

The Old · Drive-Reduction Theory

To understand the components of an addictive product, we must first understand the science of motivation, the old paradigm, and the discovery that completely broke it. Back in the early–mid 1900's, the dominating theory proposed that humans were motivated primarily by things that served a physiological purpose. According to drive-reductionists (the dominant theory), thirst, hunger, and sex are primary drives, while value in things like money and material possessions are learned through conditioning. So, according to scientists like Robert Hull and Kenneth Spence, most behaviours were explained as a desire to reduce these innate drives. We get jobs, buy fancy cars, and help or hurt people in an effort to survive and procreate. At the time, it paralleled Freud and Maslow’s different but conceptually similar ‘layered’ explanation of human needs and motivations, where food and sex were always at the forefront of these desires, whether conscious or not.

Moreover, drive reductionists believed that food and sex (extrinsic motivators) were an organisms ‘primary’ drivers, and said organism could thus be conditioned with these types of rewards. For example, a mouse will get better at completing a maze if it receives food after each success. That’s reinforcement in a nutshell. It was up until the mid-twentieth century when one scientist’s observation completely changed the way we think about motivation, conditioning, and ultimately fulfilment in life.

The Discovery · Mice, Monkeys, Men, and Motives

The revelation first began seemingly by accident when a very prolific and controversial American scientist named Harry Harlow was studying problem-solving abilities of rhesus monkeys, a common subject of his experiments. The story goes that Harlow noticed that his subject monkeys would continue to play with mechanical puzzles before and after the planned experiment — in the absence of typical reward (food). Essentially, the monkey’s learned for the sake of learning. This went against the conventional wisdom that positive reinforcement would undeniably shape behaviour positively (to the desired outcome). Dually astounding, when a positive reward was introduced to try to reinforce the ‘playing’ (exploration), it had an extinguishing effect on behaviour. More simply, when the subject monkeys were encouraged or rewarded to play, they for some reason lost interest and stopped playing. This counterintuitive observation and eventual proven phenomenon went against everything scientists thought about root motivation, which was generally thought to serve some physiological purpose whether direct or not. This exploratory behaviour was coined ‘intrinsic motivation’ by Harlow, and it is the crux of our engagement model.

The New · Intrinsic Motivation

Harry Harlow first coined the term intrinsic motivation, but psychologist Edward Deci, and Richard Ryan dedicated their lives to studying it. Here is their standard definition from their 2000 paper titled, Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being:

Intrinsic motivation refers to the spontaneous tendency “to seek out novelty and challenges, to extend and exercise one’s capacity, to explore, and to learn” (Ryan and Deci, 2000, p.70).

Exercise, games, travel, reading, and even watching TV all satisfy the seeking system to varying levels of effortful operation. On one side of the spectrum someone could climb Mount Everest, and on the other they could browse Netflix. Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp defines this exploratory behaviour as being driven by the organisms innate seeking system. To reiterate, the anomaly behind seeking is that it provides seemingly very little utilitarian value — it does not fulfil some physiological needs deficit, but we do it anyway. We create our own value from within. Also fascinating, we now know that organisms behave in intrinsically motivated ways even when they are lacking ‘basic’ needs such as food, water, or shelter. How many times have you seen a homeless person reading a book? Do you think they’re practising for a job interview? No, they’re seeking.

Designing for the Seeking System

Companies know that humans are actively seeking new, novel stuff all the time. That’s what makes the internet such an engaging tool — it gives one the ability, at their fingertips, to exercise their seeking system instantaneously and infinitely. Travel is another way humans exercise this trait, and again one of the largest economic drivers in first world countries. Although these are human examples, the seeking system is not a uniquely human trait — all animals have a seeking system.

Television is a prime example of a tool that really exercises our seeking system in the home. Especially with the advent of the remote control, users can remain in a constant seeking state without interruption. Now, we have tools like Netflix, where users can browse a seemingly infinite amount of content through a multitude of filters (cover art also adds to engagement). How many times have you browsed Netflix for seemingly too long? The fact is that humans get enjoyment out of looking at images and making judgements about the content they have yet to watch. Anticipation and imagination have value, and again these come from within. The satisfaction one gets from seeing new things seems to dramatically increase with dynamic ‘social’ content. For example, social media platforms give you a constant stream of information plus the ability to interact/express yourself with the contributors of that information. This is what makes tools like Facebook, Instagram, and Tinder so irresistible, and brings us to our next component of addictive product design — social affects as reinforcement.

Social Affects as Reinforcement

Social affects are very powerful behavioural reinforcers, and actually work to enhance ‘seeking’ behaviours, unlike extrinsic rewards. Affects are the social cues — the smile, frown, posturing that humans do to express their feelings (unconscious communication tool). Most have experienced how good or bad it feels to be warmly introduced or rightfully screw-faced, and I’m sure this body language had an impact on your future behaviour. Social media harnesses this phenomenon by allowing users to show their approval by liking, sharing, retweeting, commenting, or matching with the content they’ve seen.

An important feature of affective reinforcement in social media, is that displaying your approval is much easier than displaying your disapproval (there is no ‘not-like’ button). These means that there is generally more reward than punishment in the social media feedback ecosystem, and the negative consequences of disliked behaviour is arguably very nominal. This all adds to the reinforcement that these platforms want. They want you to keep creating content. This is a dream business model because the users do all the work (contributions), while you (the business) just sets up the discovery and reward mechanisms. With social media, users chase that dopamine hit they get when someone ‘likes’ their expressions, and these ‘likes’ reinforce this expressive behaviour leading to this vicious cycle of engagement.

*Addiction Tip · Variable, Intermittent Rewards

Would fishing be fun, if every time you tossed in the line, you caught something? The incredibly complex answer to that question is, no. Something weird happens to us when there is randomness to reinforcement — it makes us even more likely to repeat behaviour despite a ‘lag’ or hiccup in the reinforcement stream. Casino’s know this, and it’s exactly why gambling is so addictive. People chase highs, and the highs become more pronounce in the face of loss. Imagine if every time you gambled, you received a nominal but positive payment that was of equal value, every time? It wouldn’t be fun. Even though it would be more practically rewarding (you come out on top), you would eventually get bored, realize you can always go back to this constant stream of revenue, and go do something else.

Moreover, variance and even absence of reward reinforces behaviour, which is another counterintuitive phenomenon with conditioning. You’ve probably seen this reaction in an elevator before. Scenario: someone (maybe you) walks into an elevator end presses the ‘close door’ button. The door doesn’t immediately close, and said individual presses it 2–4 times again as if it malfunctioned the first time. Or, imagine a dead link on a website. You click once, it doesn’t work, so you follow up with eight more clicks in a row just to ‘make sure’. Facebook, Instagram, and Tinder all harness this phenomenon by varying the number of likes, views, notifications you receive on these platforms every day. The variance in reinforcement also happens inevitably due to the subjective nature of taste and ulterior motives. Regardless, variance in reinforcement is another component of addiction, and this reinforcement keeps the feed of user-generated expressive input (fuel) going — it keeps the self-sustaining system working.

Nature Selected Seekers

So why do humans seek? If we often do these things just for the sake of doing them — often with no reward — and no concrete rational purpose, whats the point of doing it and why is it so ingrained in our DNA? From an evolutionary perspective, seeking must have benefited an organisms survival. This makes sense when you think about it. When an organism explores — when it seeks — it can discover new resources which increase its (and the packs) chances of survival and procreation. Fit animals seek. Human’s advanced tool-making has taken this seeking behaviour to incredible limits, where we have learned to sail, then fly, and now blast ourselves out of our own solar system. We seek as a society — and as history shows — we often seek and destroy.

Regardless of the consequences, humans are often at their happiest when they are seeking, learning, exploring, and manipulating-in, and-on the environment around them. If you want to create a product that is engaging and/or addictive, satisfy the seeking system and affective reward system — allow people to explore, express themselves, and receive positive social cues based on their input. Granted, your business may be completely utilitarian in nature in which case I may advice against creating seeking experiences (plus the world doesn’t need more ‘addictive’ products). This in mind, designers, executives, and entrepreneurs can implement lessons learned from self determination theorists in a multitude of ways like; giving users options to choose from, encouraging ‘browsing’ (not zealously selling), or giving people the ability to communicate and express themselves through feedback services. When it comes to satisfying the seeking system, the possibilities are endless.


When you remove someone’s ability to seek, or when one loses this somewhat spiritual human characteristic — they either-are, or often-become — horribly depressed. Seeking gives purpose to humans lives, and even more importantly their work and contribution to the greater whole. This moderately new science on motivation should completely change the way businesses reward their employees, and think about their product/service offerings. In the new world economy, you need to be innovating rigorously, and innovative humans work better when given autonomy — something that our current workforce still widely lacks. Have you noticed that when you attempt to force a child to play with a toy, it loses interest, and plays with the box instead?

Let them seek!

I’m Jeff Davidson

I help companies design profitable digital products. Contact for project inquires.

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Jeff Davidson
The Startup

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