Resolutions, Metrics, and Morality of Apps

Happy New Year, everyone! How are those resolutions coming along so far? 

This year, along with my annual Dry January routine, I decided to deactivate Facebook¹. I don’t think it’s a bad service, and this isn’t going to be a hit piece or anything, but it had become a time-suck for me and I wasn’t getting enough out of it to continue².

Around the same time, I also happened to check the iOS app store on January 3rd. Here’s what I found:

 App store screenshot, Jan 3, 2018

App store screenshot, Jan 3, 2018

More than half of the trending terms were for some flavor of health- and fitness-related app³. This didn’t come as a surprise — people resolve to lose weight, get in shape, meditate, and increase their overall “wellness” (gross) in the New Year. It’s why I was there, too! 

It did get me thinking, though, about how download and usage rates of software after the New Year could be used as an indication of how the morality of apps are perceived by users. If downloads and usage rates spike in early January, it’s likely that users see your apps as virtuous — something to improve the lives of users. If there’s a rash of account deletion, or a decrease of downloads, page views, and usage starting January 2nd⁴, it’s likely that users see it as a vice. Not necessarily bad, but definitely not something that is seen as healthy. I think drinking booze is awesome, but I wouldn’t call it a virtue. 

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So, Product Managers, Designers, and Engineers — don’t just ask yourselves if your products are good or bad. Start asking, “is our product seen as a virtue or a vice?” as well. 

I’m not here to say that one is better than the other, but it should be aligned with why you’re here, the philosophy of what you’re trying to accomplish as a company or software creator. Virtues and vices can both make people feel good; are you making people feel good with satisfaction or with an indulgence? Both of these positions are valid and, ideally, intentional.

Here’s a breakdown of the categories of software apps out there from a moral perspective⁵:

Virtue Apps

Virtue apps are seen as those that help you do what you should be doing — getting healthier, wealthier, wiser. They’re positioned as not just making your life better — they’re making you better. 

The most obvious category here is weight-loss for New Year’s resolution. I don’t have access to the typical fitness app signup or usage metrics, but if I had to guess, it would look something like this: 

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Big spike for January, plus a smaller spike for pre-summer⁶ diets because you probably forgot about your New Year’s resolutions by February. I’m betting most Virtue Apps have a similar trend line. 

Meditation is another category of app that’s all the rage right now — Headspace, 10% Happier, are good examples, plus the allegedly-forthcoming Sam Harris app I wish I could include but it’s probably never going to be finished (devs are probably spending too much time on vice apps). 

Productivity and organization is another example of virtuous apps. Sounds seductive and awesome — if only I had everything organized I’d accomplish so much more. For me, though, “I’m going to get organized this year!” usually means “I’m going to take more disorganized notes in the first couple of weeks in January.” This is an area I’d actually like recommendations on — is there an app that cures laziness yet? 

Some virtuous apps even go out of their way to make sure you know they’re virtuous. The diet and weight-loss industry definitely isn’t without its critics, so it’s important to explicitly address them — I hate the term “virtue signaling,” but here we are. For example, My Fitness Pal showed me this warning for submitting a log with 0 calories (obviously they’re not up on the Intermittent Fasting trend). They want me to know that developing an eating disorder isn’t something they’ll give me social status for (NB: one of their remedies for this is using their app more often). 

 My Fitness Pal calorie deficit warning, Jan 3, 2018

My Fitness Pal calorie deficit warning, Jan 3, 2018

For a virtue-focused app, it’s important to be seen as virtuous and actually valuable. The morality-positioning questions you want to ask yourselves might be something like:

Are we promoting good behavior? Are we actually helping people? How do we keep helping them all year?

It’s of note that products can be seen as virtuous even if they’re closer to vices. There are some virtuous “wellness” apps that have the same sort of micro-transaction/addiction schemes as described in the vice section. An analogous real-world example would be something like sports drinks vs soda — they’re both packed with sugar, but Vitamin Water is usually considered healthier than Coke (both owned by the same company, btw).

Vice Apps

A vice app can be defined as something that’s taking away time away from the things you should be doing, especially if it isn’t bringing you joy. Should is definitely a value judgment here, but isn’t all morality?

Social Media apps are probably the most obvious vice apps. There is no end to the criticisms about how people, especially the younger crowd (I’m not going to say the M-word) are glued to their phones. This disconnect from the present is generally for social media — looking at Twitter, browsing Reddit, posing for pictures to post on Instagram or Snapchat, etc.

The other broad category of vice apps are games. A game, by definition, is the opposite of work (you know, that thing you should be doing). There’s nothing inherently wrong with games, but if they’re becoming a distraction/addiction, they’re going to be seen as anti-productive. Losing some productivity isn’t he worse thing in the world; darker versions of this are are free-to-play games with micro-transactions that deplete your bank account as well as your time.

For a vice app, the positioning question to ask yourself is something like this:

Are we providing a pleasurable indulgence or being predatory?

If it’s the former, how do we make sure it stays that way without being evil? If the latter, are we really okay with that?

Grey Apps

Grey apps are those apps that can be seen as good or bad, depending upon your own attitude and goals. I’m assuming dating apps see and increase in new accounts and account deletion. Why? Two user types making resolutions for the new year:

  1. “I’ve been single since the horrible breakup last August. I think I’m finally ready to get back out there. New year, new love!”
  2. “[Dating App] is full of a bunch of [gendered-insult]’s and I’m super over dating. I’m going to take some time and focus on myself for a while.”

Dating apps are awesome and effective (virtuous!) tools for meeting new people with similar interests, such as your love of standing in front of Machu Picchu, holding fish, or not voting for Trump. But if you’re just swiping as a kind of time-passing game, or if you’re only dating because of social pressure or boredom, it can be a vice. 

The other software-adjacent grey product category might be podcasts. Podcasts, just like most media, have good and bad incarnations of them. Maybe your resolution is to bone up on your Hardcore History lessons or to stay informed with Pod Save America — subscribe! Or maybe you’re spending too much time listening to fluff/gossip podcasts instead of reading — unsubscribe! If you’re a podcaster, seeing a uptick or decrease in downloads might indicate how your listeners feel about your content’s value. 

The positioning questions for grey content creators might, in addition to the virtue & vice questions, be something like:

Are the right people using our app for the right reasons? 

Wrap up

The decision to make a virtue or vice app doesn’t make you a good or evil organization — a virtue-focused app can be created by an evil company, and vice versa (see what I did there?). How users perceive the morality of your app should be congruent with your company’s mission. Your key usage metrics in early January can be a great indication of which side of the coin you’re on. 


Footnotes:

  1. Wait — where am I supposed to share this article??
  2. The scales tipped when I found out that you could still use Facebook Messenger with a deactivated account. Now the only things I’m missing are event invites and curated Washington Post articles. 
  3. I don’t know how much this differs from normal trending numbers, but looking at it a couple of days later didn’t show any. I’m also not sure how the “trending” list is generated by Apple — could be totally user-generated, Apple promoted, or a mix. 
  4. Yes, the 2nd— no one starts a resolution with a hangover. 
  5. Completely made up by me. But it feels right, yeah? If any companies explicitly or implicitly listed in this article want to reach out (thusspokekayvon@gmail.com), I’d love to geek out on them with you.
  6. Northern hemisphere, obviously. Sorry Aussies! 

Kayvon Ghaffari is a Product and Business Development consultant. He enjoys behavioral economics, user-centered design, and psychologically satisfying third items. He lives in Seattle with the best cat