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Identify Addictive Application Patterns

Learn to identify patterns in software that create addictive feedback loops.

As our environment gets more complex we need to be better educated to navigate it. For example, I think that people would be more protective of their privacy, if they learned all the ways the data is used to manipulate them. I have been considering lately that we need to better identify other patterns that are intentionally used to create addictive behavior in applications and websites. Knowing these patterns may allow us to understand certain features for what they are and avoid them.

Pull to Refresh

Bucket this in with any refresh mechanism that gives you that rewards when there is occasionally something new to see. Open your email and pull to refresh? Is there anything new? It is reward seeking behavior. It is well established that having a random award (new email!) appear after an action is an addictive pattern.

Infinite Scroll

This pattern ties into our desire to “finish” a set of activities. When we have read through all of the items, we get that reward of completion. Infinite scroll tricks us into reading more and more, waiting to get to the end. Eventually we realize that we will never get to the end and have to give up. Instead of the reward of being done, we have the shame of giving up.

Feedback Loops

These come in two flavors, public and private. How many likes did that post get? That is a direct feedback loop to reinforce some pattern of desired behavior. This is an obvious one to see and is present in all social feedback loops.

There is also Analytics as Addiction. Exposing the activity based on your content is on the surface a good intent to inform you on how effective your content is to some goal, whatever that may be. But it also reinforces a desire to check repeatedly and insidiously alter behavior to steer to more engagement.


I have also noted that some of these patterns show up in other places that I don’t think of as intentionally addictive. They become user paradigms that people adopt as best practices. Pull to refresh for example appears in nearly all email clients. There is no commercial benefit to us getting a reward for obsessively checking our email, but it’s presence can encourage it.


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