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What factors and techniques contribute to making a user experience addictive?

I ask this in the context of websites, games and other software. What makes people want to keep coming back for more?

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closed as not constructive by JonW May 10 '12 at 6:00

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Do you mean something like Captology? –  Elmook Feb 28 '10 at 13:17
    
I mean if you have a game, for instance, how can you make it addictive? I don't mean technology in general. –  Philip Morton Feb 28 '10 at 15:57
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Add heroin to it? –  Glen Lipka Mar 1 '10 at 20:01
    
I think this is a bad question for SE, actually, because if anyone knew the answer, they would be making their fortunes! I don't think it has one single simple answer. –  Schroedingers Cat Feb 5 '12 at 13:47
    
"Gamification By Design," by Gabe Zichermann & Christopher Cunningham. –  tajmo May 9 '12 at 21:56

9 Answers 9

Having studied addiction in school it seems like there is a little misunderstanding of what it is, and how it's different then the development of a habit.

What makes a web/game addictive is anything that causes a chemical change in the brain, and withdrawal symptoms when the web/game is removed. If there is no withdrawal then the clinical definition of addiction has not been met.

To simplify this answer, I'm going to say that in most web/game addictions there is a connection between the stimulus that triggers the release of dopamine.

While a lot of the answers here are very good ideas. They are not exactly on the mark for addiction. A lot of the answers relate more to "shaping behavior" and that doesn't cause addiction. Porn websites for example can be addictive, and they employ none of the techniques you'd find in a well designed video game.

Here are my points for a designed web/game to be addictive.

  • You have to trigger the release of dopamine. What works for one person isn't going to work for everyone. The use of sound, flashing lights, rewards, and social triggers are just things you can "do" that might trigger the release. The answers here all have good ideas.
  • You must skillfully administer the right amount of stimulus. When someone becomes addicted to something, they need more stimulus to get the same result as when they first started. The most common technique in video games is to increase the speed, make sound louder, faster flashing. It's either faster or bigger.
  • Consistency is very important in the development of addiction. Avoid designs that take the visitor threw constant changes in environments or experience. You only want to change the things related to increasing the stimuli.
  • It must be easily accessible. It's difficult to feed an addiction and keep it going if you can only engage with the web/game late at night after work. So make it accessible for everyone, but remember consistency. If they can't get their fix, then they go into withdrawal and withdrawal is the first step in overcoming an addiction. We don't want that ;)

Finally, addictive does not mean good design or success. It just means people find it hard to stop, and that doesn't always bring those who created the thing success. It's much better to have a well designed product that solves a problem and there is a need for it, then something that is just addictive.

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I recently did some research on this and talked to Dr. Clayton Lewis (computer Scientist in Residence @ CU Boulder). Much of my answer comes from the copy of Engagement Analysis he gave me. Another (healthier and more appealing) way to describe addiction is Engagement. Factors that Encourage Engagement

Caveat:remember that Engagement only works if you are merely surfacing the intrinsic motivations the "player" already has. If you hate your job at the factory but care about the people that use the cars you build then dangling money in front of you for building a better car is more expensive and less effective than illuminating the impact you have on the users. E.g., have them come to the factory for a tour.

  • Competition. For some people, competing against someone face to face, or against a highest score list, or against a personal best, promotes engagement.
  • Goals with tuned difficulty level. If a gamelet's goal is too easy to attain the game will be boring; if too difficult, it will be frustrating. Since people get better with practice, especially in an educational gamelet, there has to be some way to escalate the difficulty to compensate. Many games do this with explicit levels; some do it with automatic difficulty changes based on player performance.
  • Peer Validation - This is one Dr. Lewis didn't have in his Analysis but I think it's very very important. The Facebook Like button, the Voting on StackExchange (on this very QA site) are all driven by Peer Validation. To have someone else who has the same deep interest in some obscure topic (like What is Fun) Like your Answer is incredibly motivating. Its what keeps folks taking Instagram photos. Put another way :
    If you posted a photo of a falling tree on Facebook and no one Liked it, did you really post it?
  • Partial reinforcement. Though it violates common sense, it is very clear from a great deal of data that rewarding someone for their behavior occasionally creates much more dedication to a task than rewarding them consistently. This is related to difficulty level: if you win every time the game is too easy; if you never win you can get discouraged, but if you win occasionally you may stay with game for a long time. So, in a game design, partial reinforcement is a reward that is given only occasionally. Note that partial reinforcement is a good example of a powerful factor in engagement that doesn't seem to relate to fun or enjoyment.
  • Observable progress toward the goal. Engagement seems to be increased if you can identify clear progress as you approach the goal, even if you don't ultimately win. If you are just randomly drifting around in the game, and then with no warning you find that you've won, that doesn't build engagement as effectively as an extended process in which you feel you are working your way towards the goal.
  • Emergent gameplay. Dr. Lewis talks about Emergent Events but I went to a WikiPedia definition of Emergent Gameplay and found it very useful. complex situations in video games, board games, or table top role-playing games that emerge from the interaction of relatively simple game mechanics. I think most people would call this "hacking the game". Deus Ex is often cited as a game responsible for promoting the idea of emergent gameplay,2 with players developing interesting solutions such as using wall-mounted mines as pitons for climbing walls. In many solitaire games you may be able to play off a bunch at cards on one play, also if you have set things up right. In Tetris, you can hope for a cascade of level clearances. Having these things happen may act as intermediate rewards during play, and help to sustain your interest. (Again, the partial reinforcement idea says these things will be more effective if they don't happen too often.) In game design, an emergent event is something that is positive, that results from user actions (not just randomly), is extended in time (not just a short sound effect or a bump to the score), and gives a sense of progress with reduced (or no) effort.
  • Cycles of tension and release. In baseball, it happens all the time that a team makes progress, say by getting a runner on base, or even by having a batter get ahead in the count, only to have the batter make an out, or the inning end. In soccer, a team may have a promising attack on goal, only to have a shot saved and the ball cleared. It appears that these cycles of nearing the goal, with heightened tension as it approaches, followed by release, as the apparent progress dissipates, build engagement. Interestingly, analogous cycles seem to be important in music (see ), and in screenplays (see ). The fact that these cycles are so universal in film (even "serious" films like "Frost/Nixon", as well as potboilers like "The Golden Compass", have this in a very obvious way... the struggle upwards, with success looking possible, then the episode of despair, it's hopeless after all,and then the culminating triumph) suggests that this may actually be the most important of the engagement factors. Emergent events may also play into the cycles: watching an emergent event releases tension. Observable progress towards the goal is also important: it doesn't matter if there is a cycle, if the player can't tell there is one.
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Stephen Anderson's book Seductive Interaction Design has good coverage on all the abovementioned aspects, if you'd like a deeper dive.

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I highly recommend this book. The author couples the underlying psychological principles with loads of real-world examples. It was only published last year, so many of the examples are current. –  Calvin Chong May 10 '12 at 3:50

Most of the web games base their "addiction" on simple behavioral methods (yes, like the mouse in a Skinner box).

Examples :

  • They use Positive Reinforcement within their games (Experience point, gifts, goals)
  • They use strong emotional design (fun, fear)
  • They encourage competition (social motivation)

Game like Farmville or Mafia Wars wars use reinforcement, Doom emotional design.

Another classic category of games with high addiction levels are RPGs with their online version MMORPG which have also a strong base of catharsis (like the Psychodrama)

This kind of trick could easily be transposed into other activities not related to gaming purposes.

  • Tumblr used for some time the "tumblarity"
  • Blip.fm has "props" and "badges"
  • UX Exchange (or better the Stack Exchange model) use Reputation (Social importance, it's a big deal for human ego) and badges to encourage the people to participate in Q&A
  • Volkwagen launched a site with demonstration of the "fun theory"

So that's all folks? Nope, there are plenty of factors that can determine the addiction level but these in my opinion are the most evident.

I want to add also a great book:

It's a popular book by Robert Cialdini and it's a good book to know more about psychological bases of marketing&co.

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What makes something addictive generally falls into one of 5 categories:

  1. Novelty - Let someone experience something new. The challenge here is in providing something new consistently
  2. Fun - Not an easy one, partly because not all of our fun ideas are seen as fun for many other people.
  3. Curiosity - Let me discover something new and I will keep exploring in the hopes of finding something cool. Think of rare items in MMORPGs as a good example.
  4. Showing off - Let me show other people how cool my new or achievement is.
  5. Social interaction - In the end people are always looking for a human touch, and nothing provides that like... well... humans. I know of many people that keep "playing" online games just to chat to their friends in the game.
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It's when the person achieves flow with the system.

In my positive psychology class, I was introduced to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's concept of flow. We made a quick survey and found out that our peers achieved flow in activities like gaming and surfing the Internet. I don't remember if there were specific games or websites mentioned, though.

To sum it up, the system should create a flow and it shouldn't be easy to break.

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If addictive is loosely defined as "an essential service" or "somewhere I just have to be" then imho these are the factors (divorced from the user, which is of course a dumb thing to do, but for illustrative purposes) :

  • Aesthetics: the feel of a site conveyed through the graphic design can make many users, or a certain type of user, feel at home....comfortable...a nice place to 'be'.

  • Goals: what goals are the user trying to achieve? If you're supplying them, there's a good chance (in conjunction with everything else) that it will encourage that addictive nature that you're trying to encourage. For example, I find UXMatters addictive - freshly updated material, good aesthetics, good community...

  • Community: if the content is to be generated by the community, having a good community will also help generate addicitivity because fresh, interesting content is generated that means that the user has to keep returning to get their fresh fix of info goodness. Anyone can build a sexy site...but it takes great users to make it exceptional (imo)!

  • Personalisation: ensuring that the system or the user generates content that is directly relevant to the user...as well as aesthetic skins to enable the user to tailor his own addiction (more toys = more retention, but not always). Essentially a personal filter.

I can't think of any others at the moment...but my gut feeling is that with the correct amount of personalisation (and/or customisation) AND content AND community that you could end up with a lovely site with more addictive potential than sugar coated crack? :)

e2a: Specifically regarding games, making them addictive is all down to gameplay. Way way too many games publishers go for the 'ooooh shiny' approach and forget about the basics of gameplay. Get the gameplay right and everything else follows. Not directly relevant to UX Exchange imo....but check out Angry Birds on the iPhone if you want the very definition of addictive gaming!

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One technique, already mentioned, is using reputation systems. There's a great presentation on this topic from Bryce Glass (Yahoo).

And there's a book and a companion blog that may worth a look.

Also, there are different reward systems that can be applied, read more about them on the Casual game design blog.

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There's some interesting research done on the concept of Flow, or immersion. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote a book called Flow, and in that he discusses how flow "is a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity". Factors such as challenge, skill level, and even personality or character affect how one can achieve this state.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology)

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I use Flow all the time in design. Love it. –  Glen Lipka Mar 1 '10 at 20:01