Eeny, meeny, miny, woe: Why even retail apps are built to keep you scrolling
The endless scroll that leaves you confused as you search for things to watch, eat or wear, isn’t an accident. The apps are winning, even when you don’t buy.
How many hours have you collectively spent, trying to find something to watch amid the tiles of options on a streaming platform; something to eat on a food-delivery app; something to wear on an e-fashion store?
A seemingly mundane task that started out as joyful turns into an ordeal. It’s the tyranny of too much choice (a champagne problem if ever there was one; but a problem nonetheless).
The endless scroll started out as the endless stroll. The surfeit of choices in early-hyper-capitalist American supermarkets as far back as the 1970s sparked studies on how people choose, and struggle to choose, when their aisles are filled with only marginally different products. Did one go with the familiar detergent, or try something new? Opt for the milk with the best price of the best promise? The snack that was tastiest or healthiest?
But that was a different world, one of products that were trying (and sometimes lying) to stand out. They weren’t actually aiming to keep you in the store. That last bit has changed.
The 2023 State of Play Report, released in August by analytics company Nielsen, states that because of the growing number of programme titles and streaming services the average viewer (across the US, UK, Canada, Mexico and Germany) spends more than 10 minutes per session just trying to decide what to watch.
What many users do not realise is that this is not an error in the system or a design flaw. Every moment that a user spends on a digital platform, not consuming, is a moment in which they are themselves the product.
Browsing, adding to cart or list, deleting from cart or list, watching trailers, clicking to see enlarged views, checking out sizes, meal deals or toppings are all activities that provide the platform with hours of data and layers of information. This is data that they can then use to rethink their offerings, web design and promotional features. It is also data that can be swapped with other companies. Which is partly why related content turns up unexpectedly, on platforms far removed from the original.
Each minute spent on the app is also, in itself, a gift to the platform. Advertising rates, revenue and investment rounds are often shaped by average-user-visit durations.
“Many apps are designed to make the user stay on the platform for as long as possible,” says HT technology editor Vishal Mathur. What such apps mark, Mathur adds, is a shift towards the gamification of the experience. “The act of you scrolling is not just you searching for something, or simply browsing. It is you playing their game.”
To alleviate the saturation, frustration or indeed real anger, filters are offered. There are Top 10 lists and “Others ordered” options to help one decide. This keeps the user from turning away from the app altogether, and of course it helps the app sell its wares.
For our part, what keeps us from just choosing, regardless of how many options are presented? Why don’t we just order a burger, when that’s what we originally wanted?
Interestingly, the array of options feeds into a very human fear of minor regret. “Is this outfit really the perfect one?” “If I watch this film, will I really feel like these leisure hours were well spent?” Offline, there are attendants, waiters, circumscribed options and physical exhaustion to act as brakes. Online, there are still hacks you can use. Take a look.
Fix a time window, and treat it as iron-clad. This window should not be a factor of how much leisure time one has on one’s hands. It should instead answer the question: What is this choice worth to me, in minutes? When that window has shut, make a choice, or move on to another alternative (getting your meal offline, reading a book).
“Planning your consumption is important when dealing with most apps because we tend to use them when we are bored or are feeling invisible or lonely,” says life coach Chetna Chakravarthy. “Instead of using it to fill a void, make your consumption more purpose-driven.”
Go in with a list of pre-set criteria. Do not begin to scroll without a genre, cuisine or vague fashion silhouette in mind. “Articulate what you are looking for, as specifically as possible, and keep to that mission,” says leadership coach Vivek Singh. If it’s a burger you started out wanting, stray only as far as rolls and wraps. No further.
Narrow it down to a shortlist within the first five to 15 minutes. A good thumb rule is five minutes for food and 15 minutes for fashion. Do most of your research before logging on to the app, advises Chakravarthy.
Do not return from a decision to the scroll. Once a choice meets the set criteria, make it non-reversible, advises American psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (2004). “The idea is to be in a position to manage time by design and not default,” adds leadership consultant Kavi Arasu. “Hold on to your convictions. You probably had a good reason to pick as you did. Deal with the possibility of minor regret.”