Why Users Feel Trapped in Their Devices The Vortex

You pick up your phone to text your friend on the lock screen, you see an app notification, so you open the app to check the message first. While there you see an ad for something you’ve been intending to buy, then yada, yada, yada.

And 15 minutes later, you’re shopping online and you’ve completely forgotten to text your friend. Does that scenario sound familiar? If it does, you’re not alone. Many participants in our research report interacting with the site or app with a goal in mind, but getting distracted by other temptations in the online world.

The Vortex is a user behavior pattern that begins with a single intentional interaction, followed by a series of unplanned interactions. This unplanned chain of interactions creates a sense of being pulled deeper into digital space, making the user feel out of control. There are several contributing factors to the feeling of being sucked deeper into your device. Push notifications are one of the biggest culprits. They’re designed to grab your attention and communicate a sense of urgency. Secondly, designers are purposely using psychological design techniques to influence behavior and keep you engaged. Human memory is another contributing factor to the vortex. Users begin with one activity, but something they encounter along the way triggers them to branch their focus into various directions, stopping the original task and then starting a new one. Couple these natural tendencies with the tactics aimed at grabbing our attention and persuading us to click. And you have a recipe for the vortex. Why should we care about the vortex?

Well, it’s a problem simply because people feel that it’s a problem. It’s both a behavior pattern and a sensation that can result in anxiety. In some cases, when users felt that one company in particular was responsible for their wasted time, users reported abandoning that product. In response to this problem, many organizations are trying to help users feel more in control of the way they use digital products. For example, some companies like Apple and Facebook have introduced time management features to their products. The theory behind this approach is that it will enable users to change their own behavior if they want to.

So what’s your responsibility as a UX practitioner? Well, it’s OK to use designed to encourage certain actions or engagement. However, you professionals also have an ethical responsibility to ensure that their techniques don’t cross a line with their users. This strategy becomes a problem when designs cause people to act against their own best interest or make them feel out of control. If it’s too hard to take an ethical stance when confronted with your business interests, ask yourself or the extra minutes of engagement worth the bad taste that your app will eventually leave your users with. You don’t want to be the company that pulls people into the vortex.

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