When did addiction become a good thing?

I am a behavior designer. I take a deep understanding of human psychology and emerging research in the behavioral sciences to build products that change user behavior in planned and predictable ways. However, these days I’m somewhat dismayed by the persistent chatter about building “addictive” products. When did addiction become an admirable thing to cultivate?

As members of the tech industry, we need to ask serious questions about the behaviors that we are promoting. Are we really helping people live better lives? Or, are we promoting suboptimal habits and aptitudes? At best, many of the products we’re building are time wasters. At worst, they’re the addictive equivalents of cigarettes — irresistible cheap thrills that feel good in the moment, but are destructive in the long run. “Addictive” products are rampant in our lives — Facebook, Farmville (or any Zynga game), Twitter, Pinterest. The list goes on and on.

With Web products, the general assumption is that user attention can eventually be turned into money, so revenue models are often postponed. In this paradigm, success is measured in terms of user acquisition and retention. The more users you have, and the more time they spend on the site, the better. Designers of these products have learned to manufacture desire — and they’ve gotten really good at it. Services such as Facebook and Farmville constantly interrupt the lives of their users by sending out push notifications like there’s no tomorrow. But this shift towards compulsive and chronic usage might have some unintended consequences.

I worry that by promoting constant task switching and multitasking, the Internet is changing our attention. Just as muscles grow stronger with use, and persistent practice makes any skill better, some of our most subtle mental abilities grow or wither with our choices. It’s rare for a whole hour to go by without some interruption from our phones (or email, etc.), and computer and mobile interfaces have made multitasking easier than ever. While the jury is still out, it’s a real possibility that heavy multitasking is increasing compulsiveness and distractibility.

So what do we do? To me, the answer is simple. We should ask “why.” If we’re going to bring positive creations into the world, we need to seriously think about how our products are going to fit into, and enrich, people’s lives. What’s the reason we’re building these products in the first place? “To get acquired” or “to make a lot of money,” shouldn’t necessarily be our answers. Focusing on maximizing certain metrics, and creating numerically “successful” products, distracts us from bigger questions about the purpose of technology, and what role we as technologists should play in the larger community.

I believe that the purpose of technology is to take over the grating, tedious tasks that we have had to put up with for so long, so that we can live fuller, more interesting lives. In short, technology allows us to be even more human by becoming less mechanistic.

If none of us ever had to work, I think that our activities would cluster into three areas: art, interpersonal interaction and discovery (science, academic research, curiosity). While this is a much longer discussion, I worry that our community is aiming to make technology and content consumption our primary activity, instead of helping us engage in these creative and personal endeavors.

I’m not trying to be the crotchety, out-of-touch naysayer. Personally, I love LOLcats, Reddit, and many other services that could be classified as time wasters. The trick is moderation. The problem is that we, as a product design community, are purposely trying to create compulsions.

I don’t have the answers. I’m not saying that we should stop building. I’m just saying that we should take a hard look at ourselves and determine whether or not we’re bringing value to the world. We have the chance to do something spectacular with technology. We have the chance to make billions of lives easier and more enjoyable. We have the chance to free people from tedium. Let’s take this opportunity to build timesaving — and lifesaving — services, not quick hits.

This is a call to make more Amazons, eBays, and AirBnBs. A call to build fewer Zyngas. As I said before, I don’t have the answer. But with all the brainpower in Silicon Valley, I think we can figure this out. I’d like to use this post as a starting point for the discussion. Let’s hash it out, together, in the comments below.

Jason is the founder of Dopamine (ironic, we know), a behavior/UX design firm based in San Francisco. He named the company after his favorite neurotransmitter, which is involved in learning as well as addiction. It’s a reminder of design’s ability to be either helpful or, if misused, harmful. He is also a UX mentor for 500 Startups and a researcher in the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab. He blogs at persuasive.ly

Image courtesy of Flickr user xjara69.