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Interviews

Nir Eyal wants you to stop blaming technology

4 min read
Sean Blanda  •  Sep 10, 2019
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If you breathlessly follow technology (and/or political) news, you’ve witnessed the total re-examination of our technological tools. The U.S. Congress has even held hearings on social media, and it’s a common belief that we are addicted to our technology devices

This leaves product designers with a tricky landscape to navigate. At what point does making something easy to use become enabling addiction? How can those of us making digital tools do so in an ethical way? And if we’re always using these tools, how do we protect ourselves from becoming too psychologically dependent on them?

Nir Eyal is the author of the new book Indistractable, which contains frameworks and advice for getting some control over your tech habits. So we spoke with the author about his previous book Hooked, the ethical role of product designers, and how the talk of tech “addition” is overblown.


Interview edited for length and clarity.

Inside Design: Why this book now?

Nir Eyal: I was struggling with distraction at one point and I thought that the problem was the tech tools, because that’s what every other book says on the topic. At first I thought I was going to title this book Unhooked, and it’s going to be kind of a mea culpa of “Oh wow, look at how bad this stuff can be for you.” 

But the more I dove into it, the more I realized that there’s a chasm between what the gurus and experts say and what the authors say and what the science is saying. 

ID: What are we getting wrong?

It’s not addiction. An addiction is a pathology. It’s overuse. Single-digit percentage of people get addicted. 

I thought it was the case myself. I got rid of my technology. I bought a flip phone from Alibaba. I got a word processor [that’s not connected to the internet]. I went on a digital detox. But it didn’t work because the root cause of distraction is not technology. Technology is the proximal cause. 

We need to get to the root cause of this fundamental human problem why we don’t do what we say we’re going to do. Because even when I had my word processor and just using a flip phone I suffered for it. It’s very nice if you’re a professor that doesn’t use social media, but I need social media! It’s my livelihood! And I need email to communicate with my friends. I miss my friends if I don’t communicate through these channels. Distraction is not a new problem, but if it is distraction that you seek, distraction you will find. 

“We need to get to the root cause of this fundamental human problem why we don’t do what we say we’re going to do.”

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ID: I have to call out the irony, which I’m sure you’re aware of, which is you being of this industry saying, “Wait, it’s not the industry!”

There’s no dichotomy between understanding how to use habit-forming products for good and how to warn people about how to take steps to make sure that they put it in its place. I don’t work for Facebook. I don’t own a single share of Facebook or Google. I never have. And frankly, as far as I’m concerned, screw them. Stop using those products if they don’t serve you, I’m not on their bankroll. 

ID: You wrote in Hooked about the ethical use of habit-forming products…

Do you remember the one case study in Hooked? It wasn’t a gaming app. It wasn’t a social media company. It was the Bible app. Nobody remembers that. It was the last chapter in the book. I explicitly call out why the book is not about building “addictive” products. I could have titled it that. I didn’t. I called it how to build “habit-forming” products because habits can be very good. 

The people who have used Hooked are companies like Kahoot. That is the largest educational software in the world. Or Fitbod, creating a habit of exercising in the gym. These are wonderful habits. Which is why I put the Bible app as the case study. 

Because if you read the case study for the Bible app and you say to yourself, “Look at how it gives people purpose and it gives them a calling. It gives them a connection, it gives them meaning in life to be better.” In that case, you think behavioral design is wonderful. 

But if you could think religion and the Bible app is a force for divisiveness in the world, that it separates people based on ideological and sectarian grounds. Then you say, “oh, that’s bad!” And this is the problem with our current debate right now in society at large: we love binary thinking. We want someone else to chew our cognitive food for us so we don’t have to think and so we want the media to tell us good guys versus bad guys. 

(Design for good using InVision Studio.)

Is social media good? Yes. Is social media bad? Yes. Is the Bible app good? Yes. Is the Bible bad? Yes. It’s complicated. 

ID: Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if the telephone were invented today. There’d be panic about how anyone can just have their voice into my house at any given time. 

I was just reading an article yesterday about how Arthur C. Clark talked about this very same problem, how the damn telephone is melting people’s brains and it’s wanting to destroy society.

ID: But we have a set of norms and roles that evolved there. That gives us a status quo that we’re all comfortable with. We just haven’t quite evolved rules on these social platforms yet. 

This is what human beings have always done. We adopt new technologies to fix the last generation of technology. And we should do that with a harm-based approach, not a fear-based approach. 

I remember when I was growing up, I was born in the 70s but my first memories were in the 80s, and I remember in my household we had ashtrays all over the house. My dad quit smoking years before and my mom never smoked. And yet, we had ashtrays all over the house. Why? 

Well, because back then, when someone walked in your house, back when 60% of the adult population smoked, you just expect it to light up a cigarette in your living room. It was no big deal. 

Well, today, if someone came over and lit up in my living room, I’d kick them out. They wouldn’t be my friend anymore. Well, how did that happen? There’s never been a law that says you can’t smoke in someone’s living room. We adopted these new social norms and we adapted our behaviors. That’s exactly what’s going to happen with these technology products. We are learning how to put them in their place.

ID: How should individual product designers think about this?

Use the regret test. Ask “If people knew everything the product designer knows, would they still execute the intended behavior? Are they likely to regret doing this?” 

The designer knows better than the user. This is the right ethical framework, not only from a moral imperative, from a business imperative. People aren’t stupid. You don’t go to the same grocery store that sells you rotten apples and keep buying apples, right? 

(Use InVision Freehand to do great user research.)

You should design your product in a way that minimizes customer regret. I want the regret test to be the industry standard. The designer in the back of the room should say, “Hey boss, we should run a regret test on that.” And the regret test will show us if people regret using our product before it’s live.

ID: What’s something you hear people say that makes you suspicious of their viewpoint on technology addiction? 

Here’s the word you want to look out for more than any other: “dopamine.” 

People like [Design Ethicist] Tristan Harris and talk about dopamine and he has this great line, and he’s a marketing genius. He talks about how it’s the “race to the bottom of the brainstem” because it sounds super-scientific. 

Everything changes the brain. Everything that is reinforced uses dopamine. When you hug someone, when you learn tennis, when you learn a new language, dopamine is released. 

Dopamine is not cocaine, right? People talk about it like, “Oh, dopamine squirts! It feels good! It’s just like cocaine!” No! It’s nothing like cocaine. It’s naturally occurring. It tells you, “Hey, listen up. That was important. Pay attention next time.”

“We want someone else to chew our cognitive food for us so we don’t have to think.”

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ID: Is there anything else for the designer in the product process to keep in mind? 

Can you look at the mirror and ask yourself, “Is what I’m doing materially improving people’s lives?” But that’s not good enough. The second question has to be, “Am I the user?” 

Because I want you to break the first rule of drug dealing which is “never get high on your own supply.” So I intentionally want you to break that rule so that if there are any deleterious effects, you’ll be the first to know about it. 

If there’s one piece of legislation I do support, if this some kind of use and abuse policy to help the people who are actually addicted but to leave the rest of us alone. I don’t want a notification every time I’m on Twitter for too long. That’s not helpful to me.

ID: Sort of like the Netflix “are you still watching?” prompt that most of us ignore.

Do you know you can turn that off? In the book, I write about “hacking back.” There are tools you can use. For example, I use the Facebook Newsfeed Eradicator. It’s totally free chrome extension that replaces the news feed with an inspirational quote. And there are ad blockers. 

When you hack back, there’s nothing they can do. Mark Zuckerberg can’t reach back into your phone and turn on those notifications, right? We can do something about this.

ID: There is something exhausting, though, about the idea that I have to enact a bunch of bureaucratic systems and workflows to manage my digital life.

Well, welcome to 2019. You don’t have to hunt your own food. You don’t have to turn your own butter. You can talk to me for free with this amazing tool in real time. Yeah, I’m asking you to change your notification settings! I don’t think that’s too much to ask! That’s the price of progress, folks. It’s not that hard. 

ID: Our personal life is one thing, but what about these tools at work?

Many people complain to me about how Slack is so distracting and how it’s so awful and it turns out at Slack they don’t have this problem. It’s fascinating. 6:30, everybody’s gone. Everybody out of the office. Weekends, if you use Slack on nights and weekends, you’re chastised. Because at Slack it says on the company walls, “Work hard and go home.” It’s part of the company culture. They give people psychological safety. 

Source: Quartz.

Though, I wish I could say that you can do everything about this problem, that’s not the case. If your boss calls you at 9:00 PM, you’re going to get distracted. But it’s not the phone that he’s using to call you. That’s the problem. It’s the company culture that’s the problem.

Nir Eyal is the author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. He blogs at NirAndFar.com. Visit Indistractable.com to receive a complimentary video course and workbook on becoming indistractable when you purchase your copy of the book.

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