Hooked on Your Phone? Here’s Why

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I was texting with my daughter the other day and there was a pause in the conversation. I could see the three little dots. Surely she was typing a clever response to the remark I’d just made. I couldn’t wait to see it, so I sat there, phone in hand, staring stupidly at the little dots.

I went on like this for maybe a minute and a half before I realized I was being silly. My phone would alert me if she responded, so why was I glued to the screen?

It turns out I was doing exactly what the messaging apps creators wanted me to do. Their technique is called “persuasive design,” and it’s baked into many of the apps and tools we use every day on our phones.

Subconscious Factors are Hard at Work

According to this BBC report, persuasive design plays to the parts of your brain responsible for forming habits and addictions. It’s intended to stimulate dopamine and give people a sense they will be rewarded if they stay in the app.

The three little dots that tell you someone is typing a message is one example. Another is Twitter, or Instagram, where you can keep scrolling down looking for something good – and then back up again, to a refreshed screen with new items on top. It’s the same kind of psychology that keeps people sitting at slot machines in Vegas for hours on end (though I’ve frankly never understood the appeal of feeding coins into a machine all day).

Other apps appeal to our psyches in different ways. Facebook harnesses our need for love and attention. Games like Farmville keep us playing because we’ve already put so much time into them, it would be a shame to let it all go to waste. Notifications are often red because the color red releases the stress hormone cortisol. This makes us feel we need to resolve something, so we react to the notification.

A key feature of persuasive design is that it operates on a subconscious level. One of the core things we teach at Beyond Philosophy is that subconscious factors influence behavior much more than you might think. App and game designers seem to have caught on to this in a way that many retail and service businesses haven’t.

For example, my son could have become an accomplished guitar player in the hours he spent playing Guitar Hero on his Xbox. From a rational standpoint, there’s no reason he should prefer pushing buttons on a plastic guitar to playing the real thing. But unlike music lessons that require hours of thankless practicing, Guitar Hero gave him instant competency, instant gratification and an addiction-like desire to keep improving his scores.

Other Businesses Could Learn from Smartphones

Many of our clients are convinced that if they just find the right rational formula of price and product, they will win out over the competition. But many customer decisions are intuitive, in the same way that I intuitively waited for my daughter to respond to me in the messaging app. Understanding what drives customer behavior is a key first step in rethinking the experience you’re delivering to your customer. We went into detail about this in our podcast episode, “How do Customers Make Decisions Anyway?”

As retailers battle for web traffic and sales, they might do well to take a lesson from the app world and use persuasive design to give shoppers psychological rewards for staying longer on their website, interacting with the brand, and making more purchases.

What about you? What apps on your phone trigger addictive behavior in you? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.

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