It’s time that we removed our blinkers

A few years ago, I heard a track called ‘Kooraane’ from a band called ‘Swarathma’ with whom I had an exciting part-time job. This track was based on a folk song about a tribal lord sending his men out on a hunt because his pregnant wife is craving for bird meat and the message they tried to convey was India’s newfound addiction for shopping malls, where the predators (consumers) turn into prey inside a mall when they fall for all those offers by the brands in the mall.

If we relate in today’s context we’re constantly hunted by the brands and apps like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Tik Tok, etc. which has turned us into addicts craving for the dopamine (likes, comments, views, etc) that we get on these platforms.

Where the hunt begins

Many companies design and build their products betting users will choose certain actions as they’ve planned in a certain way rather than letting the users decide what they want to do.

Here’s an example of how OTT platforms design model planning:

  • As viewers, we first get drawn to a certain piece of content or TV series by external triggers (friends, tweets, trailers on YouTube, billboard ads, etc) or the content recommendation engine within the OTT platform
  • As a second step, we get hooked to the content, the craving to complete the remaining episodes keeps pulling us back to the extent where it even distracts us from concentrating on our day to day to activities (remember the excitement that we had during GOT days creating memes, predicting the plot in the next episode, revealing the major spoilers to our friends before they watch).
  • OTT platforms understand the viewer's need (cravings) for good content and they nudge us to get into a binge-watching habit by providing access to all the episodes in one go rather than following a staggered release pattern usually followed by traditional TV broadcasters.

As viewers/consumers, we’re blindsided to these models adopted by the platforms or app. We open the app with an intention to watch one episode but end up consuming 3–4 episodes and then later regret having wasted 2–3 hours losing control on our behavior.

The platforms or app benefits by gaming the user behavior (Binge-watching habit) to spend more time on the platform or app rather than letting the viewers come back and watch the remaining episodes, which they fear many might forget or might lose interest once they find something interesting to engage on another platform or app.

Why it’s hard to get out of it?

We believe that we’re in control of choices that we make in our lives but in the digital space, it’s actually them (apps) controlling us.

Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter all leverage user-generated content to provide visitors with a never-ending stream of new content. Features like infinity scroll (used in twitter, Instagram), autoplay (used in YouTube, Instagram TV, FB videos on the feed) are designed to keep the users continuously engaged on the platform.

Hook Model

All the big tech companies at silicon valley follow the “Hook Model” to build their apps/platforms. There’s a book called ‘Hooked’ written by Nir Eyal which is a kind of bible for companies building products like Facebook, Paypal, Slack, and even Microsoft’s Satya Nadella held a copy and recommended it to all of the employees.

Rise of digital wellbeing

Google and Apple took notice of attention-grabbing apps built in Silicon Valley and started the digital wellness movement to unglue the people from their phones. This new movement is helping users with features to help understand how they use their phones with metrics like the number of times we unlock our phones, time spent on each app, built-in timer to restrict app usage beyond a certain time, etc.

The “Hook Model” is a tool to exploit users by manipulating their behaviors (the designers and product makers are going to hate me for this).

Here are three things that designers and entrepreneurs can help to bring in a change that’ll benefit the users:

  • It’s imperative that designers build products solving the user needs, without changing their behaviors (or if users agree to change their habits, it should be for the good) along with a long term engagement model.
  • Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and others top executives have banned their kids from using the technology or gadgets that they created. Designers and entrepreneurs should hold themselves accountable and build products that they themselves use and believe it’ll help improve the lives of others or the users using them.
  • Built features to help users identify their addiction or unhealthy attachments to the products, apps, or platforms and help them to unglue themselves from such habit-forming behavior.
Representation of empires built by social media platforms

Our phones are costing our own fortune. It’s dopamine addiction. We need to start the process of breaking our addiction to distraction. We’re wasting our human potential hooked into social platforms that are creating empires for owners/corporations that own these platforms.