The Dark Side of Product Management — Addictive Products

I’m sure most of us Product Managers are not evil by nature, but there is inevitably a dark side of product management too. Sometimes the same psychological devices we use to make our SaaS products engaging can also make the products really…addictive.

Do any of these behaviors seem familiar?

  • Scrolling through Facebook until 2 am
  • Binge-watching Netflix for 6+ hours
  • Spending the entire day playing League of Legends
  • Compulsively checking your email as soon as you get a Thunderbird notification

Facebook, Netflix , LoL and Thunderbird were designed not only by engineers and product managers, but by smart psychologists who have basically hacked human nature.

The line between an “engaging” product and an “addictive” one is thin.

Here’s a disturbing truth: if you understand how to make a product addictive to a human mind, you can easily apply that knowledge for evil, instead of for good.

How do you design an addictive product experience? And how do you ensure that your product is both engaging and ethical? This article will explore these questions.

Product Management & Psychology: Contents


  • Products become addictive by exploiting human weaknesses such as FOMO, instant gratification, susceptibility to variable rewards, and our desires for validation and flow.
  • Nir Eyal’s Hook Model describes the process by which products create habits as: Trigger – Action – Variable Reward – Investment.
  • Natasha Dow Schüll’s concept of a Ludic Loop contains four major components: solitude, variable rewards, instant gratification, and no end in sight.
  • We still have the same brain chemistry as our Paleolithic ancestors, and so we are hopelessly maladapted for a world with constant dopaminergic stimuli. There is a growing counter-culture that is drawing awareness to the excesses of addictive products, especially social media.
  • Since it’s possible to create products that do evil unintentionally, we need heuristics that maximize the odds of our products being used for good. The Black Mirror Test, avoiding FOG and understanding the difference between interdependence and codependence – are a few you can use to make sure you haven’t unintentionally ‘come to the dark side.’

Why are Some Products Addictive?

internet addiction
Source: ZME Science

Addictive products take advantage of numerous psychological weaknesses that all humans have.

(Note: if you think you don’t have the ability to succumb to these weaknesses, your lack of self-awareness means you’re probably twice as likely to do so!)

Here are some of the most common ones:

Fear of Missing Out

Often abbreviated to FOMO, this is the sense of anxiety you feel at the thought of someone else having a great time while you miss out. New social app Clubhouse recently exploited this by making accounts on their platform invite-only. Just imagine all the people you know having tons of fun listening in while you sit alone in your room. The manufactured solution here is to anxiously seek out a Clubhouse invitation.

Instant Gratification

Picture the scene: an ape finds a berry bush on an otherwise barren plain, tens of thousands of years ago. What does he do?

cookie monster

You’re likely to be descended from an ape that stuffed its face with all the tasty berries, gratifying itself as quickly as possible!

Since human neurobiology hasn’t caught up with our modern environment, all of us are hyper-sensitive to flashing Facebook notifications or a bell sound on our cell phones.

The urge to look — and look right now — is overwhelming.

Desire for Validation

Humans are a social species, and so there is a fundamental human desire to receive praise and attention from those around you.

The “like” feature that pervades social media appeals to this need.

It’s psychologically appealing to keep checking your feed to see how many ‘likes’ you’ve racked up, and each one is like another shot of dopamine.

Desire for Flow

The value of mindfulness and living in the moment has been understood by humans for thousands of years, initially through the vehicles of religion and prayer.

But it’s possible to hijack this healthy impulse to make an addictive product.

Just yesterday I was watching a film on Amazon Prime. When the film ended, the website automatically told me which film was “next” in the bottom-right of the screen.

It would have been so easy to click on that button instead of going to bed.

Youtube has a similar mechanism: a countdown to the next video starts at the end of the one you viewed, so that users can keep watching and watching in one endless flow.

Variable rewards

Numerous studies have found that humans find variable rewards more gratifying than predictable ones. The makers of slot machines have known this for years, and so users just keep coming back for more. It’s no wonder that many bars make most of their margin from slot machines, not drinks.

hearthstone reward
Source: Hearthstone

In the online world, games like Hearthstone also make use of variable rewards: when you open a new set of cards, you don’t know exactly what cards you’re going to get. The excitement at maybe getting a legendary card is palpable.

All the products in the above five examples were intentionally designed to be as addictive as possible, as a way of encouraging users to develop the habit of using them daily.

We can use two different types of psychological models to better understand how this process of habit formation works.

The Hook Model

This is a four-step model coined by author Nir Eyal in his book “Hooked.” The book was specifically written to explore the psychology of habit-forming products.

The four steps are as follows:

hook model
Source: Hooked

1. Trigger: Habit-forming products start by gaining users’ attention through external triggers, such as an email or an app notification.

2. Action: The behavior performed in anticipation of a reward. This could be picking up your cell phone when it beeps. Once a user starts to automatically tie their behavior to the trigger, this habit becomes part of their daily routine.

3. Variable reward: As discussed earlier, humans find variable rewards more gratifying than predictable ones. When you pick up your cell after it has beeped, you don’t know who has texted you. It could even be multiple people. There is a sense of anticipation that fills the user with excitement.

4. Investment: The sunk-cost fallacy states that we are more likely to invest in something in which we have already invested whether that investment is time, money, data, or anything else. So in the last phase of the Hook Model, the user needs to put in a bit of work. Think of the time you needed to spend training your Pokemon for a bit before you experienced the next level up, for example.

level up pokemon

Let’s look at a concrete example that pulls all this together.

Sarah feels lonely, so she checks Facebook to feed her desire for social validation. She sees a red notification icon with the number 3 on (trigger) and wonders who it might be from. She clicks on the notification button (action). She sees that she has an update not only from her best friend, but from two other random friends who she last saw in high school (variable reward). Sarah feels instant relief from her loneliness. She then spends another 20 minutes browsing her friends’ profiles to see what they’re up to (investment).

The Ludic Loop

Another way to think about habit-forming products is in terms of “Ludic Loops.”

Natasha Dow Schüll
Natasha Dow Schüll

After spending years studying slot machines and gamblers, NYU professor Natasha Dow Schüll coined this phrase to describe the phenomenon of chasing an elusive reward that always seems just out of reach.

The etymology of the term is interesting, since “ludus” can mean both “game” and “school” in Latin. Perhaps it’s just coincidence, or perhaps the Romans knew that the best way to teach someone to make something a habit is through play.

Like the Hook Model, the Ludic Loop also has four components, as follows:

1. Solitude: The user feels a sense of isolation. Very apt for the Covid world in which we live today, where we’re often alone with our devices.

2. Variable rewards: We’ve already discussed how these can be more addictive than predictable rewards. This has been well known in psychology since B.F. Skinner’s experiments on mice in the 1950s. The mice responded much more voraciously to the random rewards of food than to the predictable ones.

3. Instant gratification: The user needs to have their shot of dopamine as soon as possible. Examples of gratification could be reading a text, checking a notification, or receiving a “Well done” message.

4. No end in sight: The most addictive products have no stopping point or end to work towards. If you finish a Ludic Loop, you simply start the next one. The endless scroll feature on Facebook is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon.

Time for another concrete example to illustrate what a Ludic Loop looks like in an addictive product.

David is a product manager who lives alone. He’s finished his work day, so turns to his computer for leisure (solitude). He fires up World of Warcraft, his favorite game. He feels a sense of accomplishment each time his character wins a fight against an NPC (instant gratification). Every time he beats a boss, David is filled with a sense of anticipation because he doesn’t know what the loot is going to be (variable rewards). He spends the next few hours immersed in the story, and it feels like the endless series of quests could go on forever (no end in sight).

How the Dark Side of Product Management Affects Society

dark side

A core insight from evolutionary psychology is that modern humans are psychologically identical to their ancestors who lived thousands of years ago.

Just like a caveman wouldn’t have known how to deal with a smartphone, we are utterly psychologically incapable of handling the bombardment of notifications and alerts we receive every day. No wonder that so many of us feel anxious and overwhelmed so much of the time.

Here are some sobering statistics that illustrate how seriously addictive products are affecting society at large:

  • Nir Eyal writes in “Hooked” that one-third of Americans would rather give up sex than their smartphone.
  • According to Medikix, the average person will spend 5 years and 4 months of their life just using social media.
  • A study by the American Psychological Association found that teens who spend 5 hours per day on their phones are twice as likely to suffer from depression than those who don’t.
  • Research by Techcrunch suggests that we are collectively watching one billion hours of Youtube content per day.
  • Famemass found that as many as half the people caught using their phone while driving were on social media.
  • Twitter has amassed so much social influence that it was recently able to get away with censoring the President of the United States, supposedly the most powerful man in the world.

While it’s obviously valuable in some ways to be able to use tools like Facebook and WhatsApp to keep in touch with friends, we have to ask ourselves the question:

What psychological and social costs are we willing to bear in exchange for the perks of these tools?

Just because something is comfortable doesn’t mean it is always good.

There is a growing counter-culture that is pushing back against the worst excesses of addictive products. Perhaps the most notable example of this is “The Social Dilemma,” a docudrama produced by Jeff Orlowski in 2020 that exposes how social media is designed to be addictive and examines its effects on the mental health of adolescents.

In my own network, I have witnessed multiple examples of individuals distancing themselves from the more nefarious effects of technology. Here’s an insight a marketing friend of mine shared on Facebook:

Facebook post

I know a successful business owner with two phones: a smartphone he uses for work, and a Nokia block that he uses at the weekends when he goes mountain biking.

My best friend recently told me that he has deactivated all notifications on his phone, which makes me wonder if I should do the same. While researching this article, I decided that I would create an alternate Facebook account with 5 or so friends as opposed to 900, so as to prevent myself from scrolling through all the noise.

But these are individual solutions to the problem of addictive tech. What about solving this problem at the product level?

How do you Design a Product that is both Engaging and Ethical?

It’s worth noting at this point that evil exists objectively and there will always be some people who build products that are designed to do evil. Psychopathy and narcissism are observable phenomena with well-established psychological definitions. Roughly 4% of people are sociopaths with no sense of empathy at all.

This article is not aimed at those people. It’s aimed at product managers who want their products to be engaging and useful, not addictive or evil.

As Sophia Benhaddou, CEO of Excelway, recently argued at Userpilot’s Product Drive Summit, “we don’t have to be evil to make a product act in an evil way.”

That is to say: you can design a product with the best of intentions, but still have customers choosing to use it for nefarious ends. Check out this video of her talk.

Sophia Benhaddou’s talk

Here are some examples of products being used for evil, contrary to the intention of the product designer:

  • “The Social Dilemma” contains testimony from Justin Rosenstein, the Facebook engineer who invented the platform’s now (in)famous “Like” button. Rosenstein shares that the button was originally supposed to spread “positivity and love.” People actually use it to gain extrinsic validation and prop up their egos.
  • TOR was created to protect anonymity and privacy online, which is a worthy cause. Sadly, it’s often used by drug dealers and people selling weapons illegally.
  • I met someone at a startup event several years ago who was building a new type of online forum software. The software was supposed to make online dialogue easier and more fun. It ended up being used by pedophiles, so my contact actually shut the entire project down.

Before all the blood, sweat, and tears your product management team get poured into your SaaS company and gets exploited for nefarious ends, consider the following 3 principles to create products that are engaging while remaining ethical:

1. The Black Mirror Test

Recommended by Sophia Benhaddou in her Product Drive talk, the Black Mirror test is named after the famous TV show of the same name.

To subject a product feature to the Black Mirror Test, ask:

What is the worst thing my product could be used to do?

You can apply this heuristic to a new feature, or to your product as a whole. If the answer disturbs you too much, consider revising your vision of your product.

2. Avoid FOG at All Costs

FOG is an acronym that stands for:

  • Fear
  • Obligation
  • Guilt

Leading psychology website Out of the Fog provides dozens of examples of specific behaviors that could create these feelings here.

If you are using any of these phenomena to manipulate your user, you are acting in a way that is not only unethical, but abusive. Remove that feature of your product immediately, and take a serious review of the culture in your business.

3. Understand the Difference Between Codependence and Interdependence

In my personal opinion, this is the most important nuance that is missing from Nir Eyal’s “Hooked.”

If you have a codependent relationship with a person, a substance, or a product, you tell yourself that you cannot live without it. You are, in other words, addicted.

If you have an interdependent relationship with a person, a substance, or a product, you are aware that it adds a lot of value to your life. You could live without it if you had to, but you would definitely rather not.

Interdependent relationships are healthy, and codependent ones are not.

Putting this together, you should aim to design products that add value to users’ lives in an interdependent way, but not become the sort of thing that someone could spend all day on and not be able to live without.

Product Management For Good

We hope that you’ve enjoyed this exploration of the dark side of product management.

It’s quite humbling to think about how many hours we all spend using products that were designed to be addictive. But it’s also quite empowering to consider that all this psychological knowledge can just as well be used to create fantastic product experiences that make people’s lives better.

If you would like to learn how to use Userpilot to make engaging products that do good, consider signing up for a demo. It’s free, so what have you got to lose?

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