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The Secret to What Makes A Product Addictive

What makes a product addictive? We look at a few products like Facebook and Instagram and unveil the secret ingredients that make them so addictive.

We’re all too familiar with that moment that happens when you’ve nothing to do; when you open a browser tab and without thinking type in a single letter that lands you on your favourite website *cough* Reddit *cough*.

After we had run out of new stories on the front page, we stopped to wonder what made these products so distractingly addictive. While the sources of “addiction” varied, the symptoms and behaviours we observed were startlingly similar across different sites and apps.

And so like true designers often do, we set out to find out what made them such a success (or distraction, depending on who you are) and why.

We polled the team and a couple of other people to find out what the most popular addictive products they loved were. And then we listed out all the things about each product that kept people coming back:

Finally, we rearranged all the common reasons together to figure out what features most of them had in common. Below, we present to you the 5 secrets to an addictive product:

1. Everyone wants to feel liked and important

That feeling when someone cool, or even just your mom, retweets your tweet

We’ve all felt it, and we can’t deny that we love it. We’re social creatures, and we seek out self-validation through social affirmation – it’s human instinct!

Getting a nod of approval, even if it’s from strangers through platforms like Reddit, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or Pinterest, make people feel like they matter.

And it turns out; there is some neuroscience going on behind-the-scenes. Your brain has a region* that processes the feeling of being rewarded which gets activated when you receive social acceptance and praise.

While some users battle to earn upvotes (Reddit), some are busy composing an impeccable photo to get likes (Instagram), and others are spending their time composing the perfect 140 characters to gain retweets and followers (Twitter).

The quest for self-validation through social media

* for those curious, it’s called the ‘nucleus accumbens.’

2. We get addicted to the anticipation of a potential reward

That feeling when notifications appear, and you NEED to know immediately just how many likes you’ve gotten

With each post you make, every notification you receive becomes rich with the promise of possible self-validation! This makes getting a new notification more exciting than you’d otherwise assume.

When you don’t know what’s behind that notification, you’re more excited to find out. It could be a simple but appreciated act, like a friend retweeting your tweet, or it could be a job opportunity through Linkedin. In many cases, this notification is displayed through a tiny app icon on the top of your phone screen. Life teaches us that it’s the little things that matter the most 😛

Mel: Yup, Ben Horowitz liked my tweet two years ago, and I’m still a bit giddy about it.

And the reason for that eagerness is because a lack of a guaranteed reward is far more addictive than one that’s assured. The brain is complacent when things are predictable, but the lure of a potential reward will drive it to keep going until it finds one.

Based on this behaviour, if the reward comes randomly from a variety of sources, the quest for a reward (likely of self-validation via likes or retweets) will carry on.

3. Our brain loves new things

That feeling when you find pages and pages of new content on Reddit’s frontpage

Ah, dopamine. Dopamine is what our brain releases when it sees something new (and positive). In the “novelty center” of our brain*, this neurotransmitter plays a big role in reward-motivated behaviour – Which is why we find ourselves constantly refreshing our favorite websites looking for something new.

You can see this in the form of Newsfeeds (Facebook), Timelines (Twitter, Instagram), Front pages (Reddit), and on the app, you may deny you secretly love: Tinder**.

Tinder is the epitome of “new new new”. With just a simple swipe, you can browse through what feels like an infinite amount of new profiles. Add to that the first point of self-validation (through getting a match), and the second point about the variability of rewards (anticipating what the next swipe will bring you), and Tinder is a perfect example of the combination of all three qualities.

But if you don’t believe us, trust the numbers: Tinder receives an insane amount of 1.4 billion swipes a day. Wow!

* This is a region in our midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area.

** While Tinder didn’t show up on our poll (we understand :P), we believe it to be an interesting and addictive product – within the right context – that deserves its spot within this article.

4. It’s tough to walk away when you’ve invested so much!

That feeling when you try and quit Facebook for productivity’s sake, but you just keep coming back.

With the pursuit of self-validation (point 1) and the anticipation of a potential reward (point 2), we end up adding photos, posts and connections into these apps slowly over time. And before we know it, so much has gone into these apps that it becomes something we default to continue using.

Facebook is the perfect example of something that’s hard for us to walk away from it’s because we’ve invested so much time and history into it – from years of photos to hundreds of friends, to thousands of posts.

Other social media platforms work similarly. Leaving Linkedin would mean leaving behind the professional network and connections you’ve grown. And while Snapchat revolves around snaps with a 24-hour expiry date (why it’s addictive needs its own article), Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest are centered around your photo & tweet histor. Again, a compilation of your contributions over time you don’t want to lose.

And to take it even further, sometimes it’s not just about the things you might be leaving behind, but about how it feels like a representation of part of your identity.

From collecting photos of things you’re interested in or aspired to be like (Pinterest or Instagram; popular topics are fashion, makeup, travel), or your photos and likes (Facebook), or your interests or intellectual preferences (Reddit).

Over time, it becomes not about quitting these products, but about leaving all these memories, connections and representations/extensions of yourself behind.

5. We want what we want, and nothing else really matters

That feeling of disinterest when a newsfeed throws you content you don’t care about.

For many on the list, an integral part of signing up contains the encouragement of the following of people or accounts, or selection of topics of interest. The purpose of that is to land you straight into a page full of things relevant to you.

With all these products, they never take a one-size-fits-all approach to what users see. With Netflix, they allow you to create multiple profiles within the same account, so your mother’s obsessive watching of Korean TV dramas doesn’t distract you from your Game of Thrones marathon. With Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and many apps, the option to follow or unfollow is always available to you.

People are inherently self-centered. We’re drawn to things we’re intrigued by, and disinterested by things we don’t care about. Whether by design or without conscious intention, we’re engaged only by what we want to see, and disinterested by things we don’t care about.

Grabbing someone’s interest is all about relevance. And relevance can take many different shapes and forms:

Facebook’s Relevance is ‘Personal’: Whether it’s exploring photos of friends, or seeing posts from pages you’ve liked, or talking to your housemates through its Messenger feature, or commenting on your family’s posts and updates – Everything about Facebook is meant to be personal. The platform also gives you the power to hide unwanted posts to further curate your newsfeed to show you only what you want to see.

Instagram’s Relevance by ‘Aspiration’: We all know the phrase “Instagram-worthy”. You work to capture the magic of where you’re at so you can post it on Instagram after. Why? Because you post inspiring and interesting photos; similar to the images of the people you follow. And you follow them because you aspire to be like them (usually within a specific context).

LinkedIn’s Relevance by ‘Professional Opportunities’: While these other products have a personal draw, Linkedin focuses on the professional. It connects you to people in your business network, and through that to professional opportunities. Its relevance is simple in the advancement of your career.

Reddit’s Relevance by ‘Curated Interests’: One of the best things about Reddit is the sheer variety, and volume of content sorted into subreddits (groups based on a topic). These groups are typically created, contributed and moderated by the community. Meaning you don’t have the standard categories often found elsewhere.

Once you’re on Reddit, you’re shown a curated wall of content based on subreddits you’ve subscribed to – And through their upvote/downvote system, they’ve put the power of keeping high-quality content into the hands of their vast community – Which ensure the content is always relevant.

In summary…

While many other factors that go into making products addictive, the five points in this article are some of the most typical and popular strategies we’ve uncovered.

And although a designer might spend a lot of the time behind the screen or on a sketchpad, being able to engage users always comes back down to understanding how people work and what they value.


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