Mobile App Development: Enhancing User Experience Through Innovative Design; Leveraging User Psychology for Economic Benefit in Mobile Applications

Afshari, Mateen, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Wylie, Caitlin, University of Virginia
Elliott, Travis, University of Virginia
Morrison, Briana, University of Virginia

Addictive design features in mobile applications such as infinite scrolling and personalized notifications drive excessive app usage, potentially contributing to anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Furthermore, the incessant demand for users' attention may induce stress and burnout; this could worsen or even instigate mental health issues. With the millions of mobile applications available to users worldwide, the prevalence of mobile applications and their influence in the modern world can not be denied. This abundance of applications in a fiercely competitive market has driven developers to create solutions to capture user attention. The fundamental challenge with capturing user attention is creating interfaces that balance engagement and the well being of users. The technical portion of my research employs some of these widely used tactics and reports on the real world metrics and efficacy of addictive design tactics. On the other hand, the sociotechnical portion comments on the ethics and potential harms of companies exploiting users through psychological vulnerabilities in their designs.
In my technical research I explored how the engagement statistics of a live mobile application could be improved. This is a common goal of many app developers, because of the potential for higher user retention rates and increased revenue through in-app purchases and advertising. Given the engagement metrics of a currently existing application on the google play and apple app store, the app was redesigned to see if the user engagement metrics would be improved. This redesign was purely aesthetic with no additional functionality added. After reviewing popular dating and housing applications, mockups were created and shared with select people to get feedback. After many iterations and much research on interface design, the final design was implemented and publicly released. As a result of this redesign, the average engagement time improved from around 5 minutes to about 25 minutes. The successful improvement of user engagement metrics underscores the importance of design for economic gain.
The sociotechnical perspective, using the Actor-Network Theory, highlights the various actors such as algorithms and developers and their contribution to perpetuating addictive design strategies. Studies on excessive phone and social media use revealed how compulsive phone use can lead to higher levels of psychological distress and lower levels of mental well-being indicators such as mental well-being, life satisfaction, and harmony in life. Additionally, analyzing interviews from former employees and developers revealed how corporations such as Facebook knowingly employ addictive design features with little regard for the ethical implications, optimizing their algorithms to keep users engaged with their platform. This research concluded that corporations exploit their users and millions of people are addicted to these applications at a detriment to their well-being. This dilemma underscores an urgent need for a shift towards more ethically responsible design that prioritizes user well-being.
This research was successful in contributing a comprehensive analysis of how psychological exploitation through app design has become a normative practice in the tech industry. Additionally, it proposes a possible solution through using regulatory frameworks and ethical guidelines that help to mitigate these issues. While the problem and its implications have been successfully outlined, it is important to acknowledge the limitations in effecting immediate change and disrupting deeply entrenched industry practices with large economic motivations. In the immediate future it is important to create awareness among users about the manipulative strategies employed in apps they commonly use, which could lead to more conscious decisions and dissuade harmful usage. Future researchers should look into effective methods of preventing harmful usage patterns as well as research the effects on younger people, especially because of the introduction of new platforms like TikTok that are immensely popular with younger audiences.
I would like to thank my STS professors, Travis Elliott and Dr. Caitlin Wylie, for their support and guidance throughout my research. My ideas and writing greatly benefited from their feedback and critiques.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
User Psychology, Addictive Design, Digital Well-being

School of Engineering and Applied Science

Bachelor of Science in Computer Science

Technical Advisor: Briana Morrison

STS Advisor: Caitlin Wylie

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