What the Tech: Infographic about harmful app UI design building blocks (discussion)

During last Mozilla Open leaders call, Kostas Stathoulopoulos, Data scientist at Nesta UK, suggested to me to create an infografics about what I was telling him and his other two colleagues: the harmful building blocks of most of the apps that distract us and make us consume our time and happiness there, instead of focussing on our life goals and the little daily steps to accomplish them.

So I’d like to follow his idea and create an infographic about it.
Here’s some example of those UI harmful building blocks:

  • infinite scroll: following the hook model of Nir Eyal, variable reward is one of the most powerful ways to hook our attention and retain it. When we scroll down our social home, for example, we wait for a potential reward (a cool photo or video), that may come out or not. While we wait for it, our brain is fed with some dopamine, that comes for our expectation of the reward (not from the reward itself, which may even never come - like at the slot machine)

  • red circle or square with number of unseen notifications: the red colour means danger to a lot of animals, and to humans too. So we have the strong desire to remove any red circle or square from our sight. Thus in the app we are driven to look for any new notifications.

  • Number of followers / number of likes / any other metrics about social activities: numbers stick to us very strongly and make all seem like a game. And in any game we want to win. So we tend to put a lot of effort in increasing the number of our followers or likes to our posts, even if behind that number there’s no real meaning or attachment by others.

Does anybody want to contribute to this list (I can create a wiki post for that)?
And once we have the list done, does anybody want to contribute to the creation of the infographic?


I would be willing to participate!


I would like to help with creating the infographic.

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If you want to get academic, I would suggest seeing attention itself as the backbone of technology. Systems are built to track our every click, every page and app that we use, and so on. Then other systems buy and sell our attention. Company A pays company B to direct real people somewhere on the web or in an app. Even things we don’t think of like services used inside our apps are attention currency which are bought and sold. For example, web browser and OS makers sell the default search engine setting … for literally billions of dollars. Every app on your device, every setting and every link is potentially for sale. Tracking your every move and attention, which is otherwise unneeded and privacy-invading, has thus become deeply built into the operating systems, apps and web sites, by default.

The harmful UI is just a symptom of attention tracking built into technology. People are tracked, that is analysed and then decisions for the UI are made based on numbers such as increasing business metrics and money. So the root cause is not the UI but that technology runs on attention. Try to cut attention out of technology and suddenly tech’s currency itself disappears, and there is much less to sell and buy for the companies involved in building tech. Most tech companies would fight hard against that. So that leaves the question, how to cut out attention if both the tech economy and our devices run on it?

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Yep. I’d like to pitch in as well. Had the intention of building a list myself. Infinite scroll (i.e. Social media timelines or “news feeds”) was on it indeed. And loyalty mechanisms like daily rewards (games).

Would be good to have a wiki list to start this.


Here’s the wiki post anyone can edit.

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Would we be okay using Canva for this project? Or is there some other method that would be preferred?

@sidnya, @aschrijver feels that Canva is not safe enough for HTC to use. For me the benefits are great enough that I’m willing to continue using it.

Here are screenshots showing privacy results for Canva.

Hmm. I think using it with blockers will be okay. Investigating alternatives is always good though.

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Interestingly enough, I get these results for ProtonMail.

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Let’s start with Canva, then we’ll see. So, my idea was to show on the infographic an ordinary social media profile / home page and then highlighting all the building blocks of it where the harmful design kicks in. I’ll set up a folder in our awareness project github repo and put there some draft when I have it.

I started a draft on Canva, PM me with your email address if you want to contribute.

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Sounds great, @micheleminno. I’ve joined.

Go, team :cat2::cat2::cat2: !


I added my interpretation of @micheleminno’s idea into the Canva folder. I did not want to edit it directly in case what I though was not what you were going for.

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@sidnya I’m embedding some of your design in mine. You can either keep working on yours or adding a page directly in mine with changes / notes / new stuff…

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Here’s the first draft:

(@sidnya, @patm I changed your item a little bit, please comment here or edit in canva if you want to change something). What do you think? Could it be done in another way to convey better the message?


This is beautiful, Michele! I love it. Can I share it on our MeWe page and note it is a work in progress?

I want to redo @sidnya’s org chart in Canva. Will share that in a bit.

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