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Ethics of User Engagement: Drawing the Line

Ethics of User Engagement: Drawing the Line

We live in an attention economy—every app on the market competes to attract users and keep them coming back. Most garner significant user engagement, and a few apps even influence user behavior.

Remember people wandering around to catch a Pokémon? Or the insanely popular game Flappy Bird that shut down after parents complained it was too addictive? And it’s not just games. Even apps such as TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat have transcended from interesting to must-have.

This raises a question: Does high user engagement automatically characterize an app as addictive? Let’s delve into the ethics debate over engagement vs. addiction. We’ll also explore what brands and businesses can do to engage users responsibly.

User Engagement vs. App Addiction

The line between engagement and addiction is blurry. Today, apps are developed on the science of behavior design. The point is to keep users coming back through three tactics:

  • Providing motivation in the form of likes, comments, shares, and variable rewards
  • Making the app insanely easy to use
  • Sending triggers such as notifications to create urgency and FOMO

TikTok has 834.3 million active users per month. What’s more, Instagram has 1.386 billion daily active users and 2.3 billion monthly active users. Given the incredible user engagement of these apps, you have to wonder: does higher user engagement directly correlate with app addiction? In addition, can an app have a high amount of active users and not cause addiction?

The primary purpose of every app is to draw high engagement that ultimately leads to increased customer lifetime value (CLTV). So, it’s not necessarily an argument of engagement vs. addiction. Rather, it’s a question of how developers can prevent addiction, especially for more vulnerable audiences such as children and the elderly.

Studies show excessive use of social media apps can also negatively affect teenagers. This raises yet another question: should app user experience (UX) designers add elements to discourage addiction?

Elements That Can Make Apps Addictive

Every app has certain features and functions that make it appealing, which increases user engagement. But as you can see, these features often walk a fine line between appealing and addictive:

  • Endless scrolling: Almost every app has this feature. Packaging content in bite-sized nuggets encourages users to endlessly scroll to consume more media. Before the user knows it, they’re reading every conspiracy theory thread on Reddit and their session length and frequency are increasing every day. Although, as marketers, this is the behavior you want: prolonged engagement with your app means more opportunities to monetize.
  • Endowment effect: This is a behavior trigger that makes people feel attached to or have a sense of ownership over assets or content they create. For example, all apps that thrive on user-generated content rely on this endowment effect to keep users coming back. However, the downside is that this effect may create anxiety and stress among your users.
  • Showing content based on user preferences: In the digital world, personalization pays off. Brands often tailor the content according to the user’s preferences, such as TikTok’s “For You” feed. On one side, it leads to a more relevant experience for the user. On the other, it again can lead to endless scrolling.
  • Social pressure: Peer pressure is baked into an app’s algorithm. There’s pressure to always be available, stay on top of the latest trends, and respond to messages instantly. For creators, there’s even more pressure to add stories daily to stay relevant or maintain status. But as a plus, this may actually create a sense of community and belonging. Today, people value friendships and debates that are online as much as those that are offline.
  • Social comparison and social reward: Some applications encourage users to compare themselves with their peers. This creates a cycle of social comparison, leading to an urge for validation. But again, for many negatives there’s also a positive. In this case, this aspect of an app can increase user engagement. And for the poster, they may gain a greater sense of confidence through posting their accomplishments and receiving positive feedback.
  • Zeĭgarnik/Ovsiankina Effect: These effects examine the psychological concept of “unfinished tasks” and how they can motivate people to keep coming back. Gaming apps use this effect by setting goals and challenges that players must complete to gain a reward. Of course, this means players put more hours into the app—it’s good for developers but not for users who want to keep their screen time down.

Where We Should Draw the Line: Suggestions for Healthier App Engagement

There’s certainly an increasing awareness of how addictive many apps can are. Some app developers have even started non-profits to consult on tech addiction to how to make apps more mindful and less focused on hooking users.

So, as app developers grapple with this aspect of what they do, where do they do draw the line between healthy user engagement and unhealthy addiction? One way is to strike a balance between the features that motivate consumers to use your app versus those that encourage overuse.

In addition, you can engage users responsibly by helping to keep them aware of their habits and possible overuse of your app. For instance, show them how much time they’ve spent on your app. Here’s how you can do that:

  • Use notifications sparingly: Always provide an option to turn off app notifications. This can help your users reduce stress and anxiety that’s triggered by the need to stay “on.” The constant “ping” of notifications can also be very distracting. One notification too many, and you may end up in the spam folder!
  • Inform users: Just like Facebook and YouTube, inform the users about the time they spend on the app. This will make them more conscious of their mindless media consumption. You can also use prompts such as “You’re all caught up” to discourage endless scrolling.
  • Allow users to disable auto-play: If you have a video streaming app, then consider the option to disable auto-play. With this, you can effectively stop the continuous cycle of content that users digest.

Boost User Engagement the Right Way With CleverTap

Every app developer wants to achieve the highest user engagement levels. However, it should not come at the cost of turning users into addicts. As you build your application and track the analytics that matter, turn to our App Engagement Benchmark Reports by industry to discover crucial information about where your app stands among the competition.

Mobile Engagement Guide

A Complete Guide to User Engagement

We present a collection of resources that will help you build more delightful customer experiences by looking at the factors that affect user engagement.

Read the Guide

Last updated on September 20, 2023