Is this you? Your phone vibrates and you pull it out of your pocket to check and see if anything interesting caused the vibration. You have a moment of boredom in a store, in a checkout line, while waiting for your spouse to get dressed – so you pull out the phone and run through a checklist of information to peruse – looking to see if anything exciting has occurred in your digital universe be it Twitter, Facebook, or any of a thousand different things people can check on these days. Finally, after prolonged lack of exposure to your smart phone, your overall sense of boredom is heightened. You get fidgety, you get bored quickly, and you feel disconnected and out of touch. Often times you simply don’t know what to do with yourself w/out a laptop or your mobile phone.

If this is you, don’t be ashamed. You’re just like millions of other people who are being conditioned by their “smart” mobile devices. Every time your phone vibrates to alert you of the possibility of something interesting, exciting, or even mundane (but new) – your brain is getting what psychologists call a “Dopamine squirt”. Over time, your brain links the phone vibration, ring, or the “new SMS” tone to a brief release of dopamine. You feel this tiny little rush of excitement that feels like adrenaline every time your phone vibrates, jingles, rings, or otherwise begs for your attention. Since this is dopamine we’re talking about, you actually suffer mild withdrawal symptoms when you are away from your phone or your phone is idle/quiet for a long period of time. You get fidgety, anxious, bored, etc.

Intermittent Reinforcement is another psychological term that is used to refer to the behavior of people tethered to their smart phones. Even if their phone has been programmed to alert them to the arrival of something new and noteworthy, millions of people will pull out their phones and do a quick scan for “new or interesting stuff”. The next time you’re in an airport, or a Starbucks, or any other crowded place (especially one with business people on their lunch break), sit back and do some people watching. Watch how often people pull out their phone, do a scan, then put their phone back. The scary part comes when you see the same person do this 4, 5, 10 times in a row while waiting in line for their coffee, sandwich, or standing on a street corner waiting for the “walk” signal to light up.

Intermittent Reinforcement is the addictive quality of video games and it is affects us at such a core, low level that no matter what kind of person we are – gamer, geek, artsy, whatever – we are still able to be conditioned using this pattern. The people holding these smart phones (I often call them “holsters”, referring to the level to which people have begun delegating all of their primary brain function to the little devices in their hands rather than thinking for themselves) have been conditioned to check their phones periodically for stimulation, to get the little squirt of dopamine. They pull out their phone, ask it “anything new?”, then put their phone back. 10 seconds later, they’ll pull the phone out again, repeat the process, and so on. The dopamine squirts that build up these subtle, low levels of addiction in people are what makes otherwise sane people crave the dopamine squirt even while driving, so they pull the phone out and check messages, send texts, and other horribly dangerous things.

In laboratory studies, rats are conditioned using Intermittent Reinforcement. They go over to a feeding tube, push a button, and sometimes food comes out. Eventually, the rat develops a pattern where it goes back to the feeding tube, pushes the button, and keeps checking over and over again to see if there is food available. Replace the rat’s food with the smartphone user’s news feed, twitter feed, facebook wall, gaming scores, etc.

Obviously some of these are extremes and the degree to which people are addicted to and conditioned by their mobile devices varies from person to person but here’s the scary part: Even if you are not one of the people I’ve described above, then you either know someone who is or you’ve seen someone who is recently.

My point here isn’t get on a high horse and complain about the state of modern technology. No, my point is that awareness of this phenomenon can make you a better application developer. If you’re aware of the patterns of Intermittent Reinforcement and you know how, over time, this can lead to “dopamine squirts” as people use mobile devices, you can design your application in such a way that it fits into this pattern and even takes advantage of it.

If you’re making a game, remember the rat. Give your users a little nugget of food every time they launch the application. Reward them and build the sense of Intermittent Reinforcement. Give them reason to come back to your game over and over again, day after day, to check and see if there is anything new worth doing, new rewards available, new progress to be made, etc. Your users aren’t rats, but like it or not, smartphone users are just as easily conditioned as rats (myself included, so please don’t think I’m being condescending here).

Even if you’re building a stuffy, boring business application, you can still take advantage of Intermittent Reinforcement and give your users dopamine squirts. Give the user a reason to come back to the app, to “check in” and see what’s new and what’s going on. When they do launch your app, give them something satisfying as a reward for having launched the application, something that will make them want to come back for more, no matter how boring the subject matter might be. One man’s insomnia cure is another man’s fetish.

I’ve said this before but it’s worth saying again – the usage patterns for mobile devices are not the same as the ones for apps in a browser, apps run from a laptop, apps used from a desktop, or even apps or games on a game console. Being aware of these patterns, especially how they affect the behavior of their users, will lead to building better applications that better suit the lifestyles of your users.