The Science behind Addictive Apps

The smartphone is a recent invention – not even a decade old yet its use is ingrained into our daily routine. It’s almost unthinkable to end the day without even using it once and true enough, individuals peek at their smartphones an average of 110 times a day. This not extreme, normal even; but about 89% of this time is spent on mobile apps and not on normal phone utilities. More than 176 million smartphone users access apps over 60 times a day. Interestingly, app users do not access more than 30 apps every month. This can mean that they are accessing the same app over and over, day after day. Is it safe to point accusing fingers to addictive apps? Or is our obsession with the very concept of having apps the root of the problem?


What Makes an App Addictive?


Addictive apps are designed to be just that.


It is said that app addiction is “built into the mindset of app development”. This is the same mechanism that makes the user return to an app to bust boredom. To learn more about the concept and design of these apps, read our previous article.


It is a common consensus that these types of apps target the brain’s reward center the same way addictive drugs do. Actions that cause happiness or pleasure trigger the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine also aids in regulating our movement and emotional responses. It enables us to identify rewards (in this case the use of apps) and boosts our desire to achieve said rewards.


Addiction begins when we continually succumb to the desire for rewards. The brain would begin to associate the apps (or the actions within the apps) with the rewarding feeling. But then, we want more and more of this good feeling that soon enough, a small dose is no longer enough – it no longer satiates us like before.  This then creates a cycle of dependence. Dopamine levels lower when we don’t get “the fix”, that is the reward. Withdrawal symptoms like anxiety, depression, focus issues and even nausea kick in.


There are constant reminders of their presence.


“It’s definitely addicting when you have this thing in your pocket, attached to your hip, that’s buzzing all the time,” said Devon Ryan (IEEE Young Professionals representative and co-founder of Lion Mobile) in his interview with The Kernel.


User engagement is undeniably one of the most important app performance metrics. So it stands to reason that app developers would want users to access the app often and what better way to do it than to give them the option to receive notifications on important events within the app? User behavior trends surface through machine learning and A/B testing. These trends guide app developers and marketers into driving more user engagement.


This is especially true with social media feeds since every notification gives the illusion of new information.  According to a 2011 study dubbed “Unplugged”, volunteers who abstained from using their phones and other technological devices experienced withdrawal symptoms within just 24 hours.


We take the bait because of some subconscious need


What is really the reason why we can’t do without checking our apps? After all, we can decide to ignore them. But it seems that we can’t stop ourselves even if we try. It turns out that we compulsively check our apps, not because of the pleasure it brings, but because we want to shake off anxiety and stress.


Dr. Larry Rosen is a research psychologist and an expert on the psychology of technology. According to him, what is going on isn’t just purely addiction. There are two processes that make it appear that we no longer make conscious choices. Also, factors like sleep deprivation, mood, and anxiety disorders seem to also influence the way we interact with technology.

Then it becomes a habit – an obsessive habit


But when does addiction/dependence on apps begin? Nir Eyal’s formula for habit formation explains a sequence called “the hook.” The hook begins with a trigger that persuades someone to try out something. This trigger is almost certainly a negative emotion. This conforms to Dr. Rosen’s study, stating that the overuse of apps springs from feelings of anxiety and stress.  The person is first “hooked” by subconsciously going through the sequence repeatedly. It becomes a habit that whenever the person remotely anticipates the trigger, his/her instant reaction is to go through the hook sequence.


Moreover, it is easier displace and existing behavior than to create a new one. “Pinterest replaced the habit of bookmarking and in fact the people who are avid Pinterest users, they install this PinIt button on their browser geographically very close to the old bookmark button. That’s not by coincidence. That’s the old trigger,” Eyal said. Therefore, even before addictive apps came along, people were going through the hook sequence using another tool.


The psychology behind addictive apps and app addiction isn’t as straightforward as expected. But at the same time, there are solid parallels between substance abuse and app addiction. A majority of substance abusers have difficulty coping with negative emotions so they use the reward of escape from reality to shake off these emotions. App addicts are the same, but instead of committing socially unacceptable actions, they cope using the escape of virtual reality. The only difference is that our idea of “reward” is something coveted in of itself because of the “good feeling” it brings but in reality, addicts actually seek this “reward” to feel less of a negative emotion.

Developing Apps for Kids 101

It is estimated that 56% of children aged 8-12 and 21% of younger children own a smartphone. On the other hand, 70% of households with children own a tablet. So it’s not a surprise that 70% of the children from these households have access to said tablet. 77% of these children downloaded game apps, while 57% used educational apps for kids. Over 50% of these children are adept in using smartphones and similar devices. With all these statistics, it can’t be denied that this demographic has a lot of untapped potentials.


It is also undeniable that developing apps for kids that grew up with the technology is challenging, especially with the 8-12 demographic. Add several more factors like the educational value of the app, and of course, the kid and parents’ reception. But is it really a monumental task? Nope. Just keep these things in mind:


Tips in Developing Apps for Kids

1.     Define your target audience.

Saying that you want to develop “apps for kids” is quite a generalization. There are apps for toddlers, apps for preteens and then assorted children’s apps considered as “educational”. Defining your target audience is important in terms of marketing, especially in targeting parents searching for age-appropriate apps for their children. Target a two-year age range at the maximum.

2.     Understand their needs and demands.

It’s bad to spoil children or so they say. But if the main goal is to entertain, we should give it all. Though parents refure the rule of mobile devices as “digital babysitters”, it can’t be denied that  a lot of apps can capture a child’s whole attention – longer and better. In order for the app to deliver this desired effect, pay close attention to these details:



A research conducted by the University of Wisconsin found that toddlers are more perceptive to interactive stimulus compared to something they can just stare at. So it stands to reason that animation and audio/visual feedback would immediately catch their attention.


Let children use their creativity by requiring their input. You can turn your app into an interactive story-telling platform or activity-centric like drawing and painting. But be careful with having interactive elements. These elements should be defined as affordances. This is to spare the kids from the frustration of tapping each element.


UI and UX design.

The layout of the app is not a big issue for older children since it is easier for them to learn the inner workings of an app as they go. Younger children, on the other hand, may need step-by-step instructions. Minimal use of textual  instructions is recommended but if it can’t be prevented, break down these textual instructions into parts and pair each part with a visual presentation.


Keep the menu simple with all the menu options just a tap away. Icons and symbols don’t need to be standard since children are more inclined to pictorial representations.


Another issue is the settings option. Make sure that if the child accidentally taps on a setting that there won’t be any drastic changes on the app, like the wiping of cached data. Also, touch target ranges should be wider to anticipate the kids’ clumsy hands. Gestures should also be basic and natural for them like swiping and tapping.


It is also important for the app to have the right “feel”. Aside from using bright and vibrant colors, the layout and character design should be age appropriate. The characters should also express the right personality and are relatable to the kids.



Kids are impatient, especially when asked to wait. App loading times should not exceed 10 seconds. There should be music or animation to keep the kids entertained if a longer loading time is necessary.



Rewards can come in the form of in-app items or positive reinforcement. Progress can also be a reward in of itself. For this to happen, the app should be challenging but not so difficult that kids would lose patience with the app.


3.     Understand the stance of the parents.

Parents actually play a big role in the decision on what apps their children can access. According to a 2014 data, 57% of parents of children below eight years old review media content before their children can have access; on the other hand, 25% of parents allow their children to browse for media content themselves. Nevertheless, parents still have a say (especially with paid apps) if an app gets downloaded or not. Here are some of the common concerns from parents:

  1. The app’s educational value. Apps need not labeled “educational” in order to be of value for parents. It can also help develop certain skill sets (hand-eye coordination being the most common) through an innovative approach.
  2. Responsible use of in-app purchases. Some apps have become the bane of parents for their trap-like approach to in-app purchases. Be upfront on the use of in-app purchases and especially on the way you present them to your young audience. Banners and icons for in-app purchases shouldn’t distract kids from the flow of the app.
  3. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a US federal law regulating the collection of information from kids below thirteen years old. It stipulates that content providers should include a privacy policy with information about content or actions that need parental consent. The law prohibits marketing to children below thirteen years old. Other countries also have similar laws.
  4. Feedback channels. Parents want to know who or where to complain to in case something goes wrong with the app. A lot of parents also want to learn of other parents’ experience/opinion about the app. Online and offline help should be available within the app or app website.

Upgrade Apps through Reskinning

Reskinning can actually give an app a new lease on life – that’s just actually the beginning. An app that reached the end of its lifespan is not totally lost. Cited benefits of app reskinning are more on the business side of things especially to a developer’s app portfolio but let’s stop for a while and consider the benefits of app reskinning on a single app – on a single source code that had seen better days.


Reskinning can upgrade apps through the following:

UI and UX Design

Design trends come and go. An app designed according to last year’s trend can look dated fast. App reskinning can keep your app look fresh and current or even timeless. Design trends don’t only emerge because of popularity but also because of its practicality. Technological advancements greatly affect platform-specific design practices and guidelines. Apple design elements changed a lot with the release of iOS 7. The Android Lollipop update had the similar effect. Apps made before these major updates may have design elements that don’t conform to the new clear and minimalist approach in UI and UX design.


OS and Device Compatibility

Both Android and iOS have regular OS updates. Existing apps need to evolve to adapt to new features and keep up with the OS’s technological demands. Apps also need to be adaptive to the device hardware. New devices tend to have bigger screens, requiring new code for custom interactions. If you are reskinning a game app, it’s like upgrading the game itself.


App Monetization Networks

Not all monetization models are created equal. App monetization models don’t even perform the same way between two similar apps. The use of an app’s past performance as a benchmark would be excellent when employing a new monetization strategy. The beauty of reskinning is that you can explore new markets with minimal risks. You can graduate from banner ads to interstitials like offer and reward walls. Upgrades on in-app purchases can include items that improve the user experience. A great example would be options to remove ads.


Rapid Development and Deployment

The app industry is quite competitive. The supply of apps far outweighs the demand. It is vital to either be the first or the best app. That’s why developers now aim to shorten the development lifecycle of apps. With shortened development cycles you gain an edge against competitors. Additionally, it is also a means to lessen the cost and stretch profits. Instead of launching a new app, it would be more practical to reskin an app especially if both apps have similar functionality. This way, you can focus more on marketing the app.


App Store Policies and Guidelines

Apps can be unfortunately caught in the crossfire of a new app store policy. It’s either you make the necessary changes in compliance with the new policy or voluntarily remove your app from the store listing. In some cases, developers are shocked to find out that their apps were removed without their knowledge. Sometimes an app loses its essence with constant content changes. But it’s also such a waste to just discard the app. Through app reskinning, modification of the app’s content is possible without the disadvantage of losing its main functionality and identity.



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Common Features of Best Apps to Bust Boredom

Everyone gets bored, even annoyed with boredom sometimes. But the sight of a very bored 20 something guy waiting in line is quite rare nowadays with the rise of smartphone users. There are apps that can keep boredom at bay after all.


Game apps don’t have the highest retention rate but it is the most engaged app category. Games are engaged 10 times more per day compared to other app categories (as a whole). Strategy games average 3 sessions a day, closely followed by adventure games and then cards and board games*. Session length is longest for card and board games with users engaging on the app for 12-14 minutes. Strategy games place a far second with an average of about 11 minutes. Adventure games start in the same range on the first day before plummeting down to 8-9 minutes per session.


This just shows that users open game apps frequently but doesn’t really sit down for a long time to play, not even with the best of apps. It’s difficult (almost impossible) to ascertain what users are doing while playing these games but what is sure is that they spend some amount of time with the app and then return to it several times later in the day, which brings on the following questions:

  • Why are users engage this type of app more than others?
  • What makes the user continually return to the app?


To answer these questions, let’s have a look at common features of best apps that fall under the category of adventure, card, and strategy. All these boredom-busting apps have these common denominators:


Fast action

There is more time for gameplay instead of following through a storyline. Unlimited lives or tries is also a big bonus. While gameplay set against time gives the impression of time quickly passing by in real life.



Mini games and adventures can keep users from leaving the game since has an option for quick and manageable sessions for non-hardcore gamers or for those who do not have plenty of time to sit through a full game session.


Easy interface

Access to navigation and gameplay should be only a few taps away. Most importantly, controls should not be something that needs a learning curve – it should be almost instantaneously instinctive.


No linear progress

There are level advancements but no storyline to follow with only one recurring goal in the gameplay. Games like this are called “Super Casual”. Some of the best apps are considered as super casual.


Strong character connection

This is in combination with interactions in the game environment wherein the user can customize characters and other game elements. Examples are the collection and combination of objects they can keep as accessories or as aides in gameplay. The user should have something to fixate upon.


Offline play and guest user option

A casual gamer should be able to access the app anytime, anywhere. Some users are also more inclined to download an app if it can be played offline since Wifi availability is limited in many areas.


Immediate feedback

Users should immediately learn how they did in a single game and not wait for the entire storyline or multi-level chapter before they receive scores and other stats. Immediate gratification should be at play.


Competitive play

Attract competitive players through leaderboards and social players through co-op plays. You want competitive and social players in your game. As long as they have someone they know to compete (or cooperate), they would return to the game again and again.


Game attachment

Facilitate attachment to the game with progress investment (the amount of time and money the player already spent on the game). Give a sense of progression even if they just started playing (free coins after the first game, etc.).


There are certainly more features and genre-specific formulas. If you noticed more features in game apps that could’ve contributed to its time killer status, let me know in the comments.


*Data is for iOS games only

Pokemon Go Plus

Is Pokémon Go Plus a Practical Peripheral?

What is Pokémon Go Plus?

Pokémon Go Plus is an app peripheral that can be used as a companion for the Pokémon Go app. The peripheral is paired to a smartphone via Bluetooth LE . Some of Pokémon Go Plus features include:


  • You can wear the peripheral as a wristband or as a clip for your tie or lapel.
  • Light and vibration alert whenever a Pokémon is nearby. The peripheral eliminates the need for constantly checking your phone for the presence of a Pokémon.
  • You can throw a Poke Ball with just a press of the button. The peripheral would vibrate to indicate that your attempt was successful.
  • The peripheral will also notify you if there’s a PokeStop nearby. It is also possible to collect items like Poke Balls, berries and Pokémon eggs.


There’s a Demand but Is It Really Practical?

As one reviewer in GameStop stated, “The anticipation is unreal!” Even with the $34.99 price tag, it is sold out prior to its September 30 release date. But do the benefits of having this peripheral outweigh its shortcomings? Accept it, even if you’re a die-hard Pokémon fan, you still want to get what’s worth your money, right? Here are several issues that can undermine the need for an app peripheral like Pokémon Go Plus:


  1. Except for the purpose of convenience, it doesn’t really offer any new functionality which is the selling point of most standalone peripherals.
  2. And since Bluetooth is used, the paired smartphone should be within the range of the peripheral. Even with the one-time setup, Pokémon Go Plus can’t be truly considered a “standalone” peripheral since it can’t function without the app.
  3. The smartphone and the peripheral would vibrate at the same time whenever a Pokémon is nearby.
  4. You can only catch Pokémon species you already captured.
  5. You can’t control the throw of the Poke Balls. A lot of Pokemon Go users worry that the peripheral is just another way to burn through Poke Balls, facilitating more in-app purchases.
  6. Pokémon Go’s bugs and glitches would affect the peripheral’s performance.
  7. You may need to stake out more money to have one. The peripheral is no longer available for pre-order. A lot of people took advantage of this and started selling guaranteed deliveries ten times the original price. You may have wait longer to have one after all.