POV: Is it the designer’s responsibility if an app is addictive?

Habit-forming features on social media apps are sparking class-action lawsuits. But does moral responsibility lie with product designers?

POV is a new column written by It’s Nice That’s in-house Insights department. Published fortnightly, it shares perspectives currently stirring conversation across the creative industry. POV digs deeper into industry discussions and visual trends, informed and inspired by creatives we write about. To uncover visual trends and insights from within the global creative community through our Insights department, get in touch here.

Alongside the typical slot machine comparison, an analogy used to describe the design of social media apps is a bottomless bowl of soup. It’s a concept derived from professor Brian Wansink, who, in 2005, supposedly proved that people will eat 73 per cent more soup if the bowl appears to go on forever. Autoplay and infinite scroll are examples of that refillable bisque in real life, as is the mechanism of swiping found on most popular dating apps. As clinical psychologist Dr. Alina Liu puts it, “because of the endless possibilities, we are pressured by the illusion to find the ‘perfect’ partner”, and so we keep going.

If a designer’s job is to get us to eat more soup, these features are highly effective; after all, it’s up to the designer to use the best tools in their arsenal to create a successful product. The problem comes when we consider the potential downsides of gorging on a bottomless dinner. The powerful infinite scroll mechanism is not as effective as it appears, when we consider how it has been designed for multiple “clients” at once – the tech company behind the app and the person using it, who both have different needs. The app user just wants something to eat, while the tech company measures success by how long it can get people to sit at the dining table. So where does a designer’s responsibility lay?

Recently, the ethics of gamified UX has been back in the news cycle. Six dating app users filed a class-action lawsuit against Tinder and Hinge (who are owned by the same company, Match) for employing “dopamine-manipulating” features which turn users into “gamblers locked in a search for psychological rewards”. Earlier in February, New York City filed its own lawsuit against Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat and YouTube for the addictiveness of their products with regards to teens and kids. Now one in six US teens describe their use of YouTube and TikTok as “almost constant”, with three in ten US adults describing themselves as “almost always online”.

Design contributes hugely to how we sink time on the internet. Bright colours and warm tones have been proven to increase user engagement, and the creator behind Tinder’s famous swiping mechanism has said the idea is similar to a psychological experiment in which pigeons adapt compulsive behaviours to gain access to food. There is such a direct link, in fact, that you could see it as a moral quandary – does a designer give over their super special ideas to the hands of the tech Goliaths?

YouTube offers a good case study. Guillaume Chaslot – a former software engineer at the platform who worked on the AI-powered YouTube Recommendations feature – has since rallied against the very mechanism he helped create due to its capability to send users down an extremist rabbit hole of content. Guillaume even created an entire company to expose the impact of algorithms that recommend content. This is surely an example of a “good designer”, right?

If it were only so simple. Most designers have about as much agency as any worker at any company. When Guillaume saw the divisive content YouTube’s AI fed users, he proposed a change in algorithm, working in tandem with different engineers to help present alternative solutions. After presenting the work to YouTube, management simply replied that Guillaume’s solutions were not the focus, watch time was. Just like designers often work on one ingredient of that bottomless bowl of soup (and are not technically responsible for the entire final output), potentially harmful tech is not always created maliciously, sometimes it happens naturally, by management placing focus in different areas.

“I believe the way we deal with ethical dilemmas depends on how the company we work for deals with them,” says Lara Mendonça, who has previously worked as head of product design at Bumble, senior manager of product design at Twitter, and design director and vice-president at Tumblr (Labs). “When I worked at Bumble, for example, I was encouraged to question the status quo as a designer, but that’s honestly quite rare. Most companies put users last when things get tough, and they see designers who ask tough questions as difficult, disruptive and even as low performers. Unfortunately, conforming can be the key to success in tech.”

It can be hard to imagine where the question of ethics comes into the working day of a product designer at Twitter, or any other social media giant. According to Lara, “every single product team” she has worked with has “discussed and cared deeply” about this. But, she can’t remember ever seeing the executive leadership and board of directors do the same exercise with their workers. “I think that's the real problem… Designers like to imagine themselves as powerful beings that shape products and brands to benefit people, but we’re usually acting on what those more powerful than us believe should be done to generate numbers that will impress investors,” she adds.

So in the ever-churning system of design tasks, projects and timesheets that sustains an app like Instagram, where does the buck stop? Lara, for one, isn’t quick to absolve designers of responsibility. In fact, she thinks solutions might arise in individual designers rethinking what their role is. Instead of trying to design the most effective product you can, Lara advises to “accept your role as a designer, in the traditional sense of the discipline, as a challenger of the status quo. Our role should indeed be to question decisions made for us, and to put the needs of the many ahead of the profits of the few.”

Gamified UX, just like the carefully-designed lights and levers of slot machines, is a brilliant tool to encourage engagement. It will be impossible to disassemble such a long-running system of design from the inside entirely. But, we can take retroactive steps. If YouTube was given some of the same restrictions – and optics – as gambling companies like Ladbrokes, we’d likely find ourselves in a very different situation. The question that is harder to answer, is how to build towards critical mass.

For designers at least, and any of us who work at organisations who create products for “users”, Lara leaves us with some parting advice to start: “Go talk to users. Get to know them, understand their real-life problems, and how digital products are part of their lives. Then start to tell people in your company about what you learned, even when they don’t really want to hear it.”

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POV is a column written by It’s Nice That’s in-house Insights department. Published fortnightly, it shares perspectives currently stirring conversation across the creative industry.

As a column, POV is an editorial reflection of our wider work on Insights, digging deeper into industry discussions and visual trends, informed and inspired by creatives we write about. To learn more about visual trends and insights from within the global creative community through our Insights department, click below.

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Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. In January 2023, they became associate editor, predominantly working on partnership projects and contributing long-form pieces to It’s Nice That. Contact them about potential partnerships or story leads.

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