The Ethics of App Engagement - If There Is a Line, Where is It?

Design

2021-07-30T21:21:21.551Z

Zigzag

We’ve all seen The Social Dilemma, experienced Candy Crush addiction, or looked at our iPhone screen time report and 😲. It’s common knowledge that some apps are hard to resist. Their bright interfaces, clever interactions, and constant notifications are a formula for addiction… err engagement. Yes, engagement.

The line between engagement and addiction is not super clear. As product owners, we certainly want our users engaged. Addicted? Not so much. However, so many of the tactics we use to engage are addictive too. It’s a grey, messy area. We wish we could write “This Is The Moment Where Your Engagement Turns to Addiction” but that’s impossible. People are unique, apps are unique, and we’re not experts in the psychology behind these complex topics.

However, we do know that this is an issue that needs to be addressed by the app makers themselves. Here’s our take.

Yes, Apps Can Be Addictive 

Too much of anything is a bad thing. And in smartphone usage, addiction can contribute to greater depression, anxiety, and poor mental health.

Here are some of the most addictive features of apps, according to this Ulm University study in July 2019

  • Endless scrolling/streaming. As soon as one piece of content ends, another automatically begins (think Netflix). This can be hard to stop reading/listening/watching.
  • Social pressure. The “read’ or “user typing” in chat apps creates social pressure which encourages people to respond faster and more often than they might prefer.
  • Social comparison and social reward. Perhaps one of the most prominent features of social reward mechanisms is the iconic “like” or thumbs up. A thumbs up gives positive feedback on the user’s content which begins a cycle of aspiration.

Yes, Apps Can Also Be Wonderful 

Ordering your favorite Thai food on a Friday night is basically the best thing ever, and apps let you do this. And while Panang curry might be slightly addictive, using Uber Eats is not. These kinds of apps don’t offer up fresh content or social connectivity so they’re mostly in the clear.

Even the traditionally-shamed apps like Facebook and Instagram have some benefits. They can connect you with old friends and keep relatives involved in your life.

So deleting all your apps isn’t super practical, especially for those that depend on them for professional or personal reasons.

When Does Engagement Become Addiction?

The line between engagement and addiction is a blurry one, and people have different opinions about where this line is.

Is it time spent per day? Per week? Number of sessions? What’s addictive to one user might not be to another. That’s one of the reasons why it can be difficult to take precautions.

The other reason of course is revenue. If your app relies on engagement to generate revenue, then you need to engage your users to stay in business (the morality of this is another discussion).

Whether you think it’s acceptable to engage users or not, this business model is not going anywhere. App engagement is here to stay. And therefore, app addiction is probably here to stay too.

However, that doesn’t mean that you should just throw in the towel and okay addictive app tactics.

How to Do Right By Your Users 

If you’re pressured by revenue goals but also want to do right by your users, we have some ideas for you.

According to Devetry’s user experience team, there are some things you can do to responsibly engage users and reduce the likelihood of addiction.

Keep Your Users Aware

Let your user understand how much time they are spending on the app. "Screen time" metrics can be built on apps to let users know how much time they’re spending in the app.

And more importantly,  let them know if they’ve seen all the latest posts. Some apps display a message like "you’re all caught up" if you have scrolled through all the latest posts. This helps prevent endless scrolling which we all know is hard to resist.

Be Mindful of Notifications

Arguably, the most nefarious thing that apps do is try and reel you back in with constant notifications. Be mindful of how often and why you’re notifying your users. Always allow them to adjust those settings in the app itself.

Similarly, if you re-engage users via email, use it in a smart way, triggered by time or actions in the app. Any email should help guide and educate users--not abuse their inbox.

Too Fast of UI?

Speed is important to users, but if sign-ups and tutorials are too fast, it can confuse readers. Especially when users are setting up preferences and settings, your UX/UI team should attempt to make these screens are clear as possible--so users know what they’re getting. In some cases, this might mean slowing down or moving buttons.

No Dark Patterns

Dark patterns trick users into certain actions on your website or application. They are typically scummy and frustrate users. Reputable product companies should never participate in dark patterns.

User interface buttons should be clear. Canceling an account shouldn’t be impossible. “Only one left!” is obnoxious. And creepy data collection shouldn’t be snuck into terms and conditions.

If you can only acquire users by tricking them, you shouldn’t be in business.


Being mindful and respectful of your user base is the best place to start. Look at usage metrics and maximize value in the least amount of time spent. And work with user experience experts to create a user-first app experience.

Want to discuss this subject more? Reach out to our team of designers and developers today.