The secret design tools which Social Media apps are using to create addiction

Edward Muldrew
The Startup
Published in
5 min readJun 25, 2019


The average millennial checks their phone 157 times daily. We’re trying to feel connected, validated and liked. Social Media is designed to sustain user’s attention with a mix of good UI design and psychology creating an addictive mix for users. Apps are constantly fighting for our attention by tweaking their features to keep users on their phones for as long as possible. So I wanted to investigate a little further as to what deliberate tools, design and features that are used to keep us hooked.

The wavy dots
Namely the “typing awareness indicator” are those 3 dots in a speech bubble you see when someone is typing. Creating anticipation, suspense as to what the person might be saying. This allows us to attach weight and importance as we don’t know what the message could be, keeping us paused to see the outcome of the message.

“The three dots shown while someone is drafting a message in iMessage is quite possibly the most important source of eternal hope and ultimate let down in our daily lives,” said Maryam Abolfazli, a writer in Washington who has tackled the topic.

The New York Times best describe this effect in this post:

Typing Awareness Indicator

The Slot Machine Effect
The slot machine effect is a well documented technique which has been mirrored across almost all social media sites. The pull-to-refresh and infinite scrolling mechanism on our news feeds is similar to a slot-machine.

The slight delay of response before your newsfeed is populated again is all a part of building the anticipation to release a dopamine hit of excitement when you get your latest posts.

The psychology behind all this is described as intermittent variable rewards. The online feedback loop needs to be unpredictable, you’re never sure what you’re going to get. It is the exact same feeling you get when pulling the lever in a slot machine to see if you’ve won. Same with Tinder, swiping right to see if it’s a match. Your action is tied to an unpredictable outcome.

This article best describes this process:

Slot Machines

The Like epidemic
Humans have been evolutionarily hardwired to crave social acceptance. And in the internet age, social acceptance is nowhere more purely distilled than in the form of the ‘Like’ button. The like button provides social validation. The number of likes can be measured and compared allowing users to establish status by a quantifiable number. Again the positive feedback loop of getting likes and feeling of approval keeps us coming back.

“You get an emotional high when your posts hit a responsive chord with your audience, so you keep going after it, and you’re never fulfilled because you’ll always want more likes,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts

Cosmopolitan make some really interesting points in this article about the negative impact of likes:

Facebook likes & reactions

Gamifying social interaction
Social media apps such as Snapchat employ gamification to engage users and keep them coming back. For example “streaks” is the one causing the most concern, and uses elongating red lines to display the number of days since two users interacted. According to Adam Alter, this design feature is so effective that he’s heard of teens asking friends to babysit their streaks while on holiday.

“It’s clear here that the goal — keeping the streak alive — is more important than enjoying the platform as a social experience,” he says. “This is a clear sign that engagement mechanisms are driving usage more than enjoyment.”

Snpachat Streaks

Push Notifications
Finally but probably the most deadly feature of them all. Push notifications which are designed to constantly distract and interrupt our days. Constantly notifying us and trying to pull us back to the app.

Every time we receive a notification, our brain produces dopamine, the chemical associated with reward and motivation. FOMO (fear of missing out) is a big part that push notifications prey on. Telling you, you have a 14 unread messages but you don’t know who is messaging you or what they are saying.

Image result for facebook push notifications
Push Notifications

As you can see social media apps are deliberate and intentional with every aspect of their app to promote more usage. Understandably so but in an age of social media addicts perhaps there should be more regulation around the ethical practices social media companies employ. Having said all this the features and the design behind them is interesting to look at from a Software Engineering perspective. For a software designer the importance of understanding how a user reacts and interacts with a product is crucial.

Sources Used:



Edward Muldrew
The Startup

Software Developer, YouTuber and all round technology fanatic. Follow me on Twitter: