Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist and product philosopher, says smartphones are becoming like addictive slot machines — only they’re sitting in billions’ of pockets instead of in casinos.
At Google, Harris worked to ensure that the company designs were ethical: optimal for the user with minimal deceit or manipulation. But, in a “race to grab your attention,” Harris emphasised in a recent Medium post, many product designers try to exploit psychological vulnerabilities.
To illustrate just how technology can exploit your vulnerabilities, Harris drew on his experience as an amateur magician. Magicians, he said, look for blind spots, edges, and the limits of people’s perception, the weaknesses of their minds where they can be influenced without even realising it.
With smartphone apps, product designers will employ variable intermittent rewards — unpredictable oscillations between important and meaningless notifications — to hook users on mobile devices. The more variable the rate of reward, the more addictive. Just like playing slots.
How Harris described it:
When we pull our phone out of our pocket, we’re playing a slot machine to see what notifications we got.When we pull to refresh our email, we’re playing a slot machine to see what new email we got.
When we swipe down our finger to scroll the Instagram feed, we’re playing a slot machine to see what photo comes next.
When we swipe faces left/right on dating apps like Tinder, we’re playing a slot machine to see if we got a match.
When we tap the # of red notifications, we’re playing a slot machine to what’s underneath.”
What’s worse, people get “problematically involved” with slot machines three to four times faster compared to other types of gambling, Harris wrote, citing NYU professor Natasha Dow Schull and author of Addiction by Design.
In fact, slot machines make more money in the United States than baseball, movies, and theme parks combined.
“Apps and websites sprinkle intermittent variable rewards all over their products because it’s good for business,” Harris wrote. “[But] companies like Apple and Google have a responsibility to reduce these effects by converting intermittent variable rewards into less addictive, more predictable ones with better design.”
It looks like Google might take on that responsibility. At the Google 2016 I/O developer conference, a few researchers indicated a forthcoming rethinking of notification design.
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