We may be savvy individuals from a highly intelligent species but we still find bright colours, flashing lights and dinging noises irresistible. There's a name for the practice of keeping us coming back for more: persuasive design. Online adverts, apps, games have this down to a fine art which plays on our instincts and psychology, but being aware of the common tricks and tactics can help us deal with the contentious issue of screen time.
Persuasive design is pervasive. From the clickbait title of a news story to the autoplay of the next episode in the Netflix series you're binge-watching, technology is always egging us on to stay engaged and keep watching. Online fun is so good at entertaining us and so endless that we don't get the normal signals that our brains need to disengage: the final whistle in a match, the winning move in a game or the credits in a movie.
Social media serves up content we want to see based on everything it knows about us, and then offers an infinite scroll so we stay glued. We're so used to being given we want straight away that we have limited attention spans; we advise our clients that their home page has just a few seconds to grab a visitor's attention and get a message across before they click away.
Persuasive design is not new and often not subtle. Casinos are well-known for the ways they keep people playing. They don't have clocks or windows so it's hard to notice time passing. They are filled with bright lights and noises, and crazy patterned carpets: it's a hyper-stimulating environment which keeps you awake, feels upbeat and is hard to ignore. Games deliver enough small or near wins to keep customers thinking a jackpot is just around the corner. A casino's maze-like design makes it physically difficult to escape from. Drinks are free but everything is contrived so it's you, not the house, who always ends up out of pocket.
Even supermarkets are laid out to tempt and manipulate us. The colourful display of fruit and vegetables that greets us, the freshly-baked bread smell, the music and lighting levels and the strategically positioned products and offers at the end of aisles and at checkouts have all been calculated to push our buttons in exactly the right way to generate maximum sales.
These models are successful because we enjoy the experience so much that we keep coming back for more. Casinos and supermarkets make us feel comfortable and happy but their magic only works while we're inside the building. With websites, apps and games they're always with us in our home or on our mobile phones wherever we go. If we ignore them for a moment, they buzz or ding to regain our attention.
Games and apps are the most successful at keeping us glued to our screens, to the extent that the World Health Organisation has recognised Gaming disorder as a medical condition. On the surface, games can be fun and relaxing, but many of us will also recognise the impulsive behaviour they can trigger.
Streaks - Snapchat, the messaging app, awards a 🔥 to all conversations maintained for more than 3 consecutive days. Duolingo, the language app, gives you a flame icon showing the number of days you've met your learning goal. They are very effective; people become proud of their streaks and go to great lengths to maintain them. We've known several friends clock into an app just before midnight to make sure they don't lose their streak.
Power-ups, ingots and more - the more you play, the more you win, often in the form of gold coins or gemstones and accompanied by sounds you'd associate with slot machines. Although none of it's real, it still resonates at some level and we feel compelled to collect them.
Loot - a controversial feature, loot boxes are like online tombolas: mystery prizes which you purchase in the hope of gaining something valuable which will give you an advantage in the game or help you advance to the next level. More likely it will be something worthless. You aren't obliged to buy them but if you don't, it's hard to keep up with your competitors. Apart from the additional cost on top of the initial game price, they could be considered a form of gambling. There is no consensus yet, but in September 2018 the gambling regulators of 15 European countries, including the UK, released a statement expressing their concern.
In Fornite, the phenomenally popular game which Prince Harry has criticised as being "created to addict", loot isn't purchased but is a big incentive to keep playing. Players begin each game on an even footing and have to scramble to find hidden goodies which only last for the duration of the game. This constant leveller means that players can't dominate the game through practice and experience; there's an element of luck in what they will find each game, which encourages people to play again and again.
So... how do we cope in the face of this bombardment which we are programmed to respond to?
For starters, it's important that we understand that it exists, even if we feel powerless to resist it. In Note To Self's recent podcast on Kids and Screens, researcher Elizabeth Englander says that many children are naive to the fact that games and social media apps exist to make money and adds "in my experience if kids hear that message enough, they will begin to feel differently".
If you're the type of person who responds to setting boundaries, South West Grid for Learning has a great article about Persuasive Design and techniques to help manage app and game use which apply to adults and children in equal measure. For example, Facebook and Instagram have tools to help manage social media use, so you can set daily time limits and mute notifications when you're trying to concentrate.
These require planning and self-discipline and they're not for everyone, plus they don't address what is often the biggest problem: impulsive use of technology. Mindfulness is such an over-used word that it has become almost meaningless, but in the context of compulsive behaviour, it means learning to be aware and in control of actions and decisions rather than letting instinctive behaviour take over. It's about training ourselves when we see a tempting click-bait link or an invitation to level-up, to pause and consider: do I want to do this, or am I just doing it because I feel compelled?
There is no simple answer to the thorny question of how to unglue ourselves from our screens, but the better we get at recognising the sneaky tricks of persuasive design, the more successful we will be at managing our responses to it.