(Update 10-26-17: Skeptech is tonight, Thursday! Livestream video is on this page starting 7pm Eastern / 4pm Pacific.)

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I recently had an unusual encounter on the New York City subway. I was riding the A train, reading a bestselling book about how to create addictive apps. (It’s the one with the yellow cover. I’m not giving the title, but you may know it anyway.)

Somewhere around 34th Street, a young woman boarded the train and sat down next to me. Her eyes lit up. “I love that book,” she said, catching my eye and gesturing to the book.

“Do you build apps?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she said, “I’m in a startup and everyone on the team has read that book. We all love it.”

She was nice enough to strike up a conversation, so I didn’t want to come right out and say that I find the book objectionable. It presents addiction as an aspirational goal for app design, even pointing to slot machines in Las Vegas as a positive case study. (The very next example cited is Twitter.)

“That’s cool,” I said, “but – well – what do you think about the ethical considerations of trying to addict your users?”

She blinked. Then all of a sudden she looked sheepish. Finally, she shrugged. “Well,” she said, “I have to eat.”

It’s disappointing to see the tech industry lose its capacity to empathize with users as human beings. Tech has been leaning in this direction for some time - I wrote a column back in January about the changes I’ve seen across 20 years - but the incident on the subway, to me, signalled a new moment. My new acquaintance was from a startup, not one of the Big Four; located in New York, not the bowels of Silicon Valley; and the whole team, not just a growth-hacking CEO, was enthusiastic about addictive design. And throughout all of it, she could give no justification for an ethical compromise.

Just this: “I have to eat.” In other words, “I’ll use any means necessary – dark patterns, slot machine-style payouts, false promises – anything to hook users on my product.” 

I know this doesn’t represent everyone in the tech industry. I’ve met plenty of individuals, usually on a product team in a larger organization, who are trying to change how the company relates to users. Sometimes they invite me in to talk to the team about my book Customers Included, which shows how treating customers with respect actually makes more money in the long run. But my book isn’t the bestseller. The addictive design book is.

Still, there are those of us left who believe in the promise of technology to respect, serve, even elevate its users. And that’s why I’m convening Skeptech, one week from today, to organize a conversation about tech. (Back in May I ran the first Skeptech event as a mini-Gel spring event; this is the 2nd Skeptech in the series: a fall mini-Gel!)

Here’s the deal...

Skeptech: Tales from the Dark Side of Tech
Thursday, October 26, one evening only
WFMU’s Monty Hall, 43 Montgomery St, Jersey City, NJ (see map)
Doors open 6:30pm, show goes 7pm to 9pm
Sign up here.

• JON RONSON (author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Men Who Stare at Goats, and host of the new Butterfly Effect podcast)
• NANCY LUBLIN, Crisis Text Line founder and CEO
• ...and yours truly hosting, as usual.

It’s up to us to start a conversation that will lead to more positive outcomes.

If you’re in the New York area, I want to see you at Skeptech. By attending, you’ll join the community of people who want to make tech better. (We’ll also have a livestream, for those of you out town: I’ll post a link to it, evening-of, on my Twitter feed.)

Sign up here for Skeptech: coming up one week from today – Thursday, October 26. 

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P.S. You can also help by sharing this post on social media. just copy and paste this, below, into your favorite social media account:

Tech has a disturbing new direction. @markhurst is running Skeptech to turn it around:

  1. Mark,
    I confess I was deep into designing habitual consumer experiences back to the ’90s. Deep. When the game was to never let the customer go offline I did everything I could to create a path for every whim. Not necessarily proud, but also think it gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure.

    I think I would do it differently today.

    • Thanks, Rick. I think a lot of online designers did that back in the 90s… though to be fair, it’s hard to compare with the much more effective dark patterns available to designers today, thanks to the years of behavioral research coming out of Stanford and elsewhere.

  2. I’m not sure it’s “new” as Rick mentions above.

    You can’t make your product successful by tricking users. An app has to give users something to value. Maybe this book is a harbinger of another trend? I think there is a lack of ideas in the startup space so people are grasping at straws.

  3. I think perspective colors one’s opinions and the words used to describe one’s points. As Rick pointed out, regardless of whether we were on Silicon Alley or Silcon Valley, we were strategizing on how to attract “eyeballs” and keep people on sites as long as possible. We’ve gotten a lot more sophisticated about how we do that. We’re a lot smarter about what attracts and keeps someone engaged. I was in New York from 1995 to 2006 and have been in the Bay Area since then, fully immersed in the tech world.

    I actually helped edit that yellow book, the author is a friend. He teaches at Stanford Graduate School where he teaches people how to create products people love. I choose to interpret that in a positive light.

    Anyone can use nearly anything for good or bad. It’s all in your perspective. Those people you know who are working to create great products and experiences for their customers and their employees (internal customers) are using the same tactics as the casinos use to keep people at the slots.

    But, the book isn’t a harbinger. It’s a distillation of tactics that have been used way before anyone was designing apps for your phone, tablet, or laptop. You could say it was refined on Madison Avenue before Silicon Alley.

    And, yes, there are a lot of copycat ideas. This happens. But, investors and VCs are becoming more demanding about the startups they invest in. And, there are actually fewer startups since millennials are realizing having a real job with a salary and benefits isn’t such a bad idea after all.

    I think this is more about ethics, integrity, morals. I’m a lot more worried about what’s going on in the real Dark Web’s potential for manipulating currencies and trolls manipulating elections with misleading ads and disinformation and the seeming cavalier attitude of companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google in policing those activities. All that is not to mention the constant distraction and disinformation emanating from Washington on a daily basis that seems to be propelling us toward some form of an authoritarian police state if we aren’t really vigilant.

  4. “The author is a good guy who means well.”

    “Actually this was all started by the advertising industry in New York.”

    “Don’t look at us, there are worse problems elsewhere.”

    All three of those are defensible statements, although they don’t get at the central point of the column. I’m asking why a bestselling book encourages startups literally to learn from SLOT MACHINES.

    Beyond the author’s intentions, beyond what other industries have done at other times, beyond whether we think Washington is dysfunctional, I want to bring us back to the focus of the column and make the same point: the tech industry, led by Silicon Valley companies and VCs, and helped along by a book written by a Stanford professor, is encouraging our best and brightest to aspire to… SLOT MACHINES. Is Silicon Valley’s best defense that “other people did worse stuff before us”?

    • Mark, your reply is rude. The way you choose to interpret what I wrote and then paraphrase is inaccurate. Don’t “put words in my mouth.” It’s obvious you’re up on a soapbox and you’re wearing blinkers that severely limit your view. I would never have thought you’d be so biased and narrow-minded. But, maybe that sells tickets, huh? Actually, you’ve really weakened your argument with these cheap moves.

      If you’re going to choose to attack one person and his book, at least have the courtesy and courage to identify him and his book. Since you chose not to do that, I will.

      Nir Eyal’s book, “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products” is about a lot more than slot machines. Nir has distilled years of research, consulting and practical experience to write a manual for creating products people love. He has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. His writing on technology, psychology and business appears in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today. Nir blogs at NirAndFar.com.

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