To Trigger, Or Not to Trigger


Do you pick up your phone often to check your socials? It probably happens more often than you think it does, so this may come as a shock to you: the average person spends nearly 5 years and 4 months of their lifetime using social media (mediakix, 2019). You may not think you use social media that much, but what about all the times you pick up your phone because you’re bored? Or when you’re waiting at the dentist’s, or even when you’re grabbing a bite with your friend (just to see how many likes your selfie got)? If you spend hours and hours on social media or your phone in general, there’s a chance you might be addicted.

According to Felman (2018), you’re addicted to a drug, activity, or substance when you physically cannot stop consuming it, even if it causes you mental or physical harm. Most people would not consider themselves as addicts of social media or even their cellphones, but how else can you explain why so many of us are hooked to our phones, social media, and other things we don’t necessarily need?

The hook

This is one explanation: most of these products and services are designed to cause addiction. The devil is in the details – nothing is left to chance and every single element of apps like Facebook and Instagram are designed with purpose.

An important aspect of designing these elements are triggers. If a trigger is designed right, it can subconsciously cause someone to do something you want them to. It can prompt a certain action. A canvas that perfectly explains how to do this, is Nir Eyal’s Hook Canvas (pictured below).

As you can see, it all starts with the aforementioned triggers. There are two kinds: external triggers, and internal triggers. For social media or phones, a trigger can be a notification of a new e-mail, an app’s logo or a link to a webpage. When people start associating personal feelings or memories with a trigger, they become internal. Let’s say you are browsing your Instagram feed and come across a picture of the beautiful hills in your country. You’ve planned to go see them with your best friend, so you like the picture. Slowly but surely you start to implement this behavior into your routine because you associate it with seeing your friends and being social. This is one of the reasons why you can’t stop scrolling.

The difference between internal and external triggers is that external triggers tell the user exactly what to do. These call to actions prompt people to behave a certain way and be rewarded for this behavior afterwards. An example of these actions is simply opening a DM on Twitter or posting a picture on Instagram. In these cases, the ‘rewards’ are the contents of the DM and the likes and comments you’ll get for posting the photo. These little moments of happiness are what makes social media platforms and cellphones so addictive – they leave you wanting more.

Since internal triggers cannot be controlled by product designers, they must make sure that their external triggers are close to perfect by using addictive persuasive techniques. Everything is tailored to the user, especially when it comes to social media. Whether it’s the company’s logo or the color of the like button, all of it is made to prompt certain behavior in users.

But is this ethically responsible?

Since you can subconsciously make someone do whatever you want (to a certain extent), you have to consider if it is ethically responsible to do so. Your users are real people, spending real time and sometimes even real money on your product or service. Phone and social media addictions can be very dangerous if left untreated, especially if every app and social platform is begging for your time and money. So before you create a trigger, you should contemplate if you’d be willing to use your product or service yourself. If you wouldn’t because the prompts would alter your behavior in a way you don’t want them to, you might want to reassess your triggers.


Now that you know why some products and services like social media and phones are so addictive, you may want to reconsider how much time you spend on them. If you are a product designer yourself, it would be good to take a second look at your call to actions. Just because you know how to alter people’s behavior does not mean you should wield this power unwisely.


Felman, A. (2018, 26 oktober). What is addiction? Medical News Today.

mediakix. (2019, 7 augustus). These 8 Social Media Addiction Statistics Show Where We’re Spending Our Time.

Cover image by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash.

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