Over the past few years, the app-making industry has been enthralled with its ability to design “engaging” user experiences. Captivating enough to get people to do things like drag their thumbs across screens literally billions of times, we have the incredible ability to capture people’s eyes, minds, and hearts. Isn’t that amazing? Don’t we feel powerful? But are we being responsible?

Let’s take dating apps. They are designed by us experts to be maximally addictive, combining a simple, repetitive interaction with one of the most fundamental motivations in humans–to be validated for being attractive to others. But are these apps also helping users achieve their dating goals? Do we care? Or have we prioritized engagement over helping users achieve their goals? Would we rather keep them in our app than out on dates? Hey, we’re just doing our jobs and we’re doing them so well that people don’t even want to go out on dates anymore. First, we’ve confounded engagement with the delivery of value. Second, we are terribly unaware of our role in conditioning people to change their thoughts and behavior.

Engagement ≠ Value

The mobile app industry, in general, is largely driven by engagement metrics when it should be driven by metrics indicating that a product or service helped a user achieve her goal. The problem is, engagement often drives monetization in this ad-driven “free” app economy.

A lot of us also operate on faulty interpretation of the “don’t listen to what your users are saying, but what they’re doing” philosophy. According to this idea, people apparently don’t know what they really want. The theory goes that users start off asking for “X”, but engagement goes up when they’re given Y. So, they must really want Y. Not necessarily! Y might just tap into a feedback loop that captures users’ motivations, but doesn’t actually deliver them the value they really need. It could be that Y just capitalizes to a greater extent on disadvantageous, motivations and behaviors. So, yes, engagement goes up, but users are not necessarily benefitted, not living better lives.

We Are Trainers

Also, we fail to recognize that the “Y” experience we give to users might actually affect their psychology—training and conditioning the way they think and behave.

Dating apps are a great, and highly visible, example of this. Let’s take Tinder, and similar. We’ve taught people not to date, because it was easier to build a distraction than a solution for dating. First people asked for an app to help them date. A reasonable, and very scientific, solution was to broaden people’s dating pools in the hopes that they would be able to find better potentials. It’s math. Theory is solid, but people are prone to fall into traps for what’s easy and instantly gratifying. The way dating apps have been set up, users are conditioned to expect endless options, and to play the game of winning the “best matches”.

Feeling lonely? Swipe around a bit, get sucked in, and you’ll end up tired or late for your next meeting or interested again in that Netflix show you’ve watched three times. We’ve also made real life dating interactions so easy to avoid that they’ve become taboo–the idea of approaching the coffee shop cutie is so against current social convention that it’s almost laughable. “Who does that? Only weirdos!” See a cute girl at the coffee shop? Don’t approach her. There are a thousand like her right in your pocket. Oh, that’s great, right? It was too difficult to think of some way to go up to her anyway, right?

Problem solved?

This would be one thing, because you’d expect people would eventually wake up to the reality that they’re not getting what they need out of the app. But, futile distraction isn’t the only issue. The larger problem lies in the fact that we not only distract, we also train. People still remembered asking for dating, but now it seems weird and almost backwards of them to want to do so. Why would I, when I can do this easy fun, instantly gratifying stuff? Want a hook-up? Repeat the steps in scenario one. It’s too difficult to try to coordinate a meet-up, anyway. Let’s just swipe around some more and maybe someone hotter and more willing to do the work will come up.

Honestly, that’s the point we’re at and people are starting to realize. User frustration with mobile dating apps is seemingly growing, but they’re still too easily distracted by our products to do something about them. It’s on us!

With Great Power, Comes Great Responsibility

We got users to forget why they even came here in the first place, so satisfied were they with the false validation we provided to feed their addiction. And… we got their eyeballs. As an industry, we got excited when we realized we could get people to do what we wanted them to do. As users, we got excited when we felt like endless doors were being opened to us for love, for sex, for validation. Only one of us had a right to be excited, the other was deluded.

Congratulations, industry fellows, we capitalized on the vulnerabilities that exist in human psychology to get users’ hearts, their eyeballs, and our payout. What did users get? “Revolution?” “Empowerment?” Please. We stole users’ time and sold it, under the guise of technologic efficiency.

By the way, industry, it’s not just in the dating space that we take advantage of the vulnerabilities inherent in users’ psychology. It happens flagrantly throughout a lot of work. Let’s get over our fascination with our own power, present company included, and take responsibility for creating benevolent products. Let’s give users what they really want, and not just the illusion of satisfaction. And in the meantime, let’s give them cats.

Kristi Kelly

Product Manager at SWARM, NYC@thekristikelly