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How to lose your snapstreak

Snapchat is the most popular texting app among teenagers in the US. It has a feature that is called snapstreak, which shows the number of days two people have continuously exchanged messages with each other.

This is a fantastically persuasive design by Snapchat. With this feature, they have given users something to hold on to and not lose. Imagine that you're a teenager and you've been exchanging messages with a friend for thirty days. You wouldn't want to lose that, so you will ensure to message that person on the thirty first day even if you have nothing to say to them. If you have such streaks with fifteen other people in your contacts (which is not that big for a teenager), you are unwittingly committing half an hour of clicking meaningless pictures and sending empty texts to these people just so that you don't lose out on your streak. In fact, Snapchat users go to such lengths as sharing their passwords with other friends when they are going on vacation (and unable to text) in order to keep their snapstreaks going.

This brings back users to Snapchat on a daily basis, grows the engagement, sells more ads and is eventually more profitable for Snapchat.

Other products do the same. When Facebook sends you an email that you have been tagged in a photo by someone and not show you the photo in the email itself, it is baiting you to come back to Facebook and spend some time there. Youtube and Netflix do this by auto-playing the episodes or videos next in line (TEDTalks does the same). Medium does this by sending you a list of articles every day in your email. And on and on.

We are in the attention economy, where every company and every product that we use is competing for our attention and time.

These companies aren't evil and the people designing these products aren't evil. They believe they are doing the right thing for the user by showing them what they want. And they measure this with the assumption that if people don't like what they're giving them, they would go away and not use their product. So, the more someone uses their product, the more this kind of persuasion works.

A few designers from top companies like Google and Facebook have spoken out about this and have been advocating for ethical design principles. They want product designers in these companies to be more mindful of the behaviours their products induce in the lives of their users.

I'm ambivalent towards that sentiment.

These persuasion tactics in designing products work effectively because people are not deliberate about what they want with their time.

When you don't know what is the best thing you could be doing with your time that will benefit you in the long term, you will pick the shiny new thing that will satisfy your immediate need for a dopamine hit. You will click on that email notification, you will want to keep your snapstreaks going, and you will check your phone every three and a half minutes to see if you have any new notifications.

While it is alright to expect product designers to be mindful of the long term goals of their users, I think it is like expecting an investment banker at Goldman Sachs to forget about their bonus and have the best interests of their clients at heart while making decisions.

Instead, we should encourage ourselves, our friends, kids and the people we care about out (even the people we don't care about) to think deliberately about what we want to achieve with our time and in our lives, set up goals that will guide our prioritization for our time, and plan our days to make progress on these goals.

Because it is easy to persuade someone who is just wandering and has nothing else to do, to join your way. It is much harder to persuade someone to give up what they are working towards and switch over to what you want them to.

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