Design panel divulges how mobile apps try to hack your brain

Like a cult, a successful web design uses mental manipulation to attract people and get them coming back repeatedly.

In a panel discussion today at the 2012 MobileBeat conference in San Francisco, some of the sharpest mindsĀ in the psychology of mobile design discussed the relationship between addiction and user behavior: Josh Elman, a principal investor with Greylock Partners and former product manager at both Facebook and Twitter; Jason Hreha, founder of Dopamine design lab and an applied psychology expert; renowned game designer Amy Jo Kim; and Nir Eyal, a lecturer at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the organizer of the panel.

Hreha began by discussing the neurobiology of addiction and emphasized the importance of applied psychology and behavioral analysis in developing mobile applications that become integrated into daily life. When designing a product, the first thing to consider is who the prototypical user is, the user’s daily life and habits, and where the app can fit into that system.

“Motivation is such a crazy nut to crack,” he said. “Different people are motivated by different things. Some people respond well to points and rewards, and other people won’t. Everybody will respond to a simple, easy user experience, and it is integrating all these components to make the app a habit.”

Once users have signed up, the next piece is getting them to stick around. Some products, like games, use reward and reinforcement systems to keep users engaged. Kim brought up the distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and the value of providing products that are enriching.

“I think collaborative games are the next big frontier,” she said. “The overall trend is away from highly competitive, addictive games. Something addictive promises but never delivers. It always leaves you hanging. Young people are aware of being manipulated and want fulfilling games that enrich their lives.”

Part of creating meaningful products is in the concept. Hundreds of emerging companies have noble mission statements, such as crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Rally, that empower people to find community support for projects. Or health apps that give users greater access to medical care. Regardless of the product, the users’ “lifecycle” must be a factor in the design. Kim emphasized that the journey through an app is as important as concise, clear new user flow.

User acquisition and progress are necessary to maintain high retention rates, which is a key factor for investors.

“On the venture side, the biggest challenge we see is companies in traction,” Elman said. “How every product spreads is always different and unique and depends on the core of that product. Apps should solve a problem with a hit of the button, and if one person uses it for his own purpose, it will cause more people to get engaged.”

All four speakers hailed the power of behavioral patterns and how an understanding of human nature is a fundamental element of mobile design. Studying the psychology of addiction can help companies develop games and products that suck people in and keep them hooked, sinking endless amounts of time and money. But as we know from comic books, along with great power comes great responsibility.

“If you are building a product which you can honestly say improves the lives of your users, and which you yourself use, then I say addict away,” Eyal said. “But if you can’t meet that test, then I would seriously ask yourself if you are making good use of your career or whether you are just exploiting people.”

To quote Steve Jobs, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

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