Day 6

Designing for dependence: How your devices and apps are built to get you hooked

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, explains how Silicon Valley makes sure your cell phone stays glued to your hand and what you can do to fight back. This is the first part in a new Day 6 series, Design .20.

'Of course these devices and apps are hacking our attention, that's what they're designed to do'

According to author Nir Eyal, many apps are designed to keep you coming back. (Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg)

Just months after the first iPhone was released in 2007, Nir Eyal and some of his Stanford classmates were part of a project creating apps that would be advertised and sold via Facebook.

This was before the app store existed and at a time when Facebook was open to third-party app developers.

The goal of the project was to learn about the psychology of Facebook and what drew people to it — or away from it. 

Eyal served as the CEO of the business and within months the apps created by the class had 16 million users and they'd generated more than $1 million US in ad revenue. They understood how to design to create dependence.

While people may talk about being addicted to their phones or to social media, the reality is that they are dependent on those products because they're designed that way. 

Those products are designed to get you hooked.

I would check my phone just for any old reason.- Nir Eyal, author of   Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Creating the habit

The group at Stanford, informally known as "The Facebook Class," went on to work at Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google.

Eyal teaches, consults and writes about the intersection of psychology, business and technology. He's the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.

"Of course these devices and apps are hacking our attention. That's what they're designed to do," Eyal told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

He says that five years ago, even he was hooked.

"I would check my phone when I meant to be with my daughter. I would check my phone when I meant to do a project at work. I would check my phone just for any old reason," said Eyal. "And that actually caused me to reconsider my relationship with distraction."

Eyal says one of the easiest ways to cut down on screen time is to turn notifications off on devices. (Ink Drop/Shutterstock)

Eyal uses an example from the behavioural work of psychologist B. F. Skinner to explain how devices and apps are designed to become habit-forming.

Skinner taught pigeons to tap a disc in order to get a pellet of food. The food was their reward.

Eventually, Skinner changed the pattern so that the pigeons would get their rewards inconsistently. The birds might tap the disc but would not always get a food pellet. 

"What Skinner observed was that the rate of response the number of times the pigeons pecked at the disc increased when the reward was given on a variable schedule of reinforcement," explained Eyal.

"We see the same, what we call intermittent rewards, in all sorts of things. It's what makes gambling so engaging. It's what makes the news interesting," he said. "It's what you don't already know."

I think in the back of the deep, deep recesses of our minds we kind of knew that something bad could happen.- Chamath Palihapitiya, former senior Facebook executive

The same desire for intermittent reward apply to books, movies and sports – the outcome is unpredictable. 

"And of course, it's at the core of many habit forming products online like social media, email, Google searches. All of these things utilize an intermittent reinforcement."

That unpredictability is why users keep checking Facebook and Twitter and Instagram – will there be any likes? Will there be any retweets? What's trending?

Sounding the alarm

Chamath Palihapitiya was a Facebook executive in the company's earlier years. Today he's a venture capitalist and a critic of social media.

In a talk at Stanford University in late 2017, Palihapitiya acknowledged that while it wasn't intentional by Facebook executives, "I think in the back of the deep, deep recesses of our minds we kind of knew that something bad could happen."


Palihapitiya voiced his concerns about the growing dependence on social media apps and devices.

"Your behaviours, you don't realize it, but you are being programmed," he told the audience.

"The short-term dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works," said Palihapitiya. "No civil discourse. No cooperation. Misinformation. Mistruth. And it's not an American problem. This isn't about Russian ads. This is a global problem."

While the typical response might be to blame the technology and the companies that create it, Eyal has a different approach. He says we become dependent because we are distracted, and that users are not powerless to fight back.

Hack back

"We have to look at the root cause of why we get distracted," explained Eyal.

"The root cause is what's called an internal trigger, not the external triggers that we tend to blame – the pings, the dings, the rings. Those are external triggers. It's these internal triggers – uncertainty, loneliness, fatigue, anxiety, stress – this is the reason we keep reaching for one distraction or another."

Eyal explains how to hack back and fight the distractions in his latest book, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life

Nir Eyal is the author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. (Submitted by Nir Eyal)

The first two of the four main steps include identifying the emotional reasons behind why you're distracted, and taking action to do what you really want to do. 

Eyal's third step is to hack back by taking control of your devices.

"Two-thirds of people with a smartphone never change their notification settings," said Eyal. "Are you kidding me? And guess what? Once you do that, there's nothing Zuckerberg can do about it. He can't turn those notifications settings back on. Very simple stuff."

The final step is to use technology to help you fight technology. One design silences another.

"There are thousands of free tools and apps out there that anyone can use to block out these distractions," he said. 

Morality of designing for dependence

When asked about the ethics of designing technology to make users dependent, Eyal says the vast majority of users need to take responsibility for their need to be online.

"We're not freebasing Facebook. We're not injecting Instagram. We're not snorting Snapchat. Come on."

The silver lining of all this data being collected about us is that these companies know, the gaming companies know how much you use their products​​​​​​.- Nir Eyal

But he does make an exception for two groups – children and those who are pathologically addicted.

Eyal has been pushing for legislation to protect those unable to help themselves, and he sites the technology itself as an aid.

"The silver lining of all this data is being collected about us is that these companies know, the gaming companies know how much you use their products," Eyal explained.

"These companies need to give us some kind of number, 20 hours a week, 30 hours a week, whatever that number is, that says if you use our product to this degree we are going to reach out and offer you resources to help you get over this addiction, to help you moderate the use of this product or stop using it altogether."

Leaving the technology altogether, says Eyal, is not realistic.

"That is not practical for the vast majority of people. You'll get fired if you stop using email.... They're very helpful to us. So we don't want to stop using them altogether," he said.

"We want to use them in a way that they serve us as opposed to us serving them."

To hear more from Nir Eyal download our podcast or click Listen above.


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