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Mediating “Addiction” through Friends: A TikTok Case Study

A UX/UI Case study on the addictive aspects and dark patterns of Tiktok.


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Nahbuma Gana

a year ago | 8 min read
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Tiktok has become one of the fastest-growing apps of 2020, pulling in users of all ages, interests, and identities. Last summer I downloaded Tiktok as a “joke” in attempts to amuse my younger sister but grew to become “addicted to the app”, even going viral a couple of times. It was then I didn’t realize the significance of this one sentence:

“I downloaded TikTok as a joke…and now I’m addicted to it.”

Last March, Shuhan Yu wrote a piece in UX Collective discussing Tiktoks’s emergence in pop culture and how its unique UX patterns contributed to its success as a social platform. In that article, she also mentions a dark pattern of forced continuity. TikTok's interface throws you into watching videos on a never-ending loop instead of splitting your time between different activities in the app.

After reading this article it made me curious about the patterns and behaviors of user’s when they immediately open the app. It became clear that the process of endlessly scrolling on Tiktok’s “for you” page was a passive and unempowering way to efficiently find the content they truly enjoy.

Understanding How People Find Content

In exploring this issue, I hypothesized that the root of the issue concerned the wellness of using the app and the time spent rather than the actual content users were looking for and to which degree they were satisfied with it.

User Research

I dove into user research and interviews in order to better discover how different users find content and are satisfied with said content. I interviewed three different types of users.

  1. The content creator: This user uses the platform to primarily create content. They aren’t of a particular age demographic nor are they a primary user in this case.
  2. The average user: This user is the typical tiktok user that uses tiktok as much as other social media. They aren’t of a particular age demographic and can often compare Tiktok to Twitter’s Vine.
  3. The GenZ-er: This user is younger than the other users as they are more in tune with tiktok trends and dances as its what most people their age are involved in. They use tiktok to share things with their friends and are on it often to keep up with pop culture trends

Market Research

While Tiktok was unique its the way it throws it’s users into looped videos immediately, it wasn’t unique in its decision to have a main scrolling feed much like other apps such as Instagram and the old fan favorite, Vine.

I realized that a critical difference between Tiktok and Vine was the “Friend ‘reshare’ Feed.” This is essentially when a user’s friends like or share something and it appears on their friends feeds as well. This prompted me to explore Twitter because the entire site was based on retweeting and liking posts from others for your own feed, which intrigued me as Tiktok did not have that function.

Heres where I got it wrong

In my user research and competitive analysis, I realized that the issue of users spending an obscene amount of time on was an issue after the initial download of the app, but afterward, the amount of time spent on the app plateaued and only spiked in times of boredom. With that being said, users still wasted time a lot of scrolling and liked videos even when they didn’t find it entertaining. They would often send the most entertaining videos to…you guessed it: friends.

The Real Problem

Users want to find engaging content on Tiktok time efficiently but can’t because

  1. Despite the algorithm, not every video on their “For You” page is engaging and it takes a few watch throughs to be engaged or understand the trend
  2. Users spend more time finding engaging content than watching engaging content

Brainstorming

Pre-quarantine, I pulled together my lovely friends Courtney Xu and Madi Ramsey to help brainstorm ideas.

Courtney’s head got cut out!
Courtney’s head got cut out!


Goals

Making finding engaging content easier:

  • Community: How might we use friends to filter content?
  • Management: How might we empower users to share content using likes?
  • Efficiency: How might we save users some time?

Friend Explore Page This flow is a page next to the trending section on tiktok, in Discover that shows you what your friends are liking and thus diverts away from the main “For You” you flow

Mute Button Redesign This button is meant to empower users to filter content easier that they find annoying/of a particular trend. I first thought of this as an obvious way to filter content and wondered why Tiktok had not already implemented this. I realized they had but it was designed to be rather discrete which is why I didn’t know about it until I sought it out.


Swipe to Dislike This last solution was very far fetched and while it had the goal of getting the users to be empowered in their feed decision by swiping away the videos they disliked, it did compromise the original business model of scrolling that is key to so many social media apps. I decided to put this solution in the bin.

The solution that I did end up going with however was the concept of a friend’s explore page. It seemed feasible and a good opportunity to use community and friends to have an impact on how the user finds and more importantly, enjoys new content.

Entry Point

Medium fidelity of friends explore page organization
Medium fidelity of friends explore page organization

My journey is discovering the final entry point kind of came near the end. At the beginning of my explorations, I only focused on the first entry to point to build the friends explore page, my I soon did a 180 after exploring organizations for the friends explore page and doing user testing. We’ll come back to exploring the entry point at the end (ironic I know).

Friends Explore Page Organization

Medium fidelity of friends explore page organization
Medium fidelity of friends explore page organization


In the end, I ended going with option A because while it proved to be very people-focused, the other options didn’t prioritize the whole point of liking videos for the point of sharing with friends, they just really emphasized content in a way that was already implied in option A. For option A, the stream of videos under a certain user would lead to a chain of videos that that user had liked. Each of the different options has a chain depending on the hierarchy of most recent or most liked videos. For option B the chain would be the group of notification, each group is its own chain. For option C it would be the chain would be made up of the notifications (which I thought would eventually get boring if you had to scroll through a chain of videos you had seen) and the option D had an Instagram style chain where if you click on a video it would send you into a chain of videos commonly liked by that user (kind of confusing for the purposes of using friends to share content, so I opted out).

These chains are important in assessing how the user gets to control which of their friends likes they can see and can’t see.

Where Empowerment Comes In

Medium fidelity explorations for muting friends
Medium fidelity explorations for muting friends

Through user testing, it was brought to my attention that muting friends were a worst-case scenario situation in which you really didn’t want to see what your friend was already posting. This finding was a huge part of why I went with option A from the organization explorations in coordination with option B from the muting explorations because muting was discrete whereas option A in the muting explorations privileges muting with the luxury of swiping. This muting flow became the final flow for muting friend’s likes. The muting flow is accessible anywhere the user’s profile is accessible.

Note: If a user doesn’t want their likes to be displayed, this can easily be done through Tittok’s already built-in function of privatizing likes.

Final Flow Pre-Round of User Testing
Final Flow Pre-Round of User Testing


After doing another round of user testing, another thing struck out to me: Users rarely left the home page to find content and often times it wasn’t worth the wait to discover content on their “Discover” page when they could depend on the algorithm on their “For You” page. With that being said, If the users were going to enter a chain of friends likes anyway why could they not easily do that from the main page? This would also save them a few steps of action. this is where I decided to go back to the entry point stage to combine what I had explored with the organization.

Finalized User Flow

Home Screen After spending most of my time iterating on the first home screen entry point, I did a 180 and decided to go with the second home screen entry point. I realized this change was important for different reasons:

  • In early user research users often didn’t drift away from the home screen to discover new content, either toggling between the following and the for you page and any other thing was a distraction not worth prioritizing which is why the Friend Likes had to prioritize in the same hierarchy
  • The original final flow didn’t give the users much mobility- they shouldn’t have to choose if they could only see one of their friends likes at once or a chain of different groups of their friends.

Chain of Friends Likes This screen adopts a chain much like options B, C, and D in the Friend’s likes exploration with chain sorted by groups of likes allowing the user to see who specifically liked the post. I realized it was unnatural for anything in the text on the right of the screen to pop up like that doesn’t happen in the app currently (as it was in the muting flow option A), which is why I chose for that to go into a page where the user could see information about the tiktok and who liked it, as well as immediate access to their likes.

Liked By Friends I chose for users to have an access point to go through different likes by users in the case (as in the earlier flow) where they saw a video that they really liked and wanted to go through the likes of their friends to find similar content, thus leading into the single friend flow again.

Final Prototype


Finding content through friends likes
Finding content through friends likes
Muting Friends Likes
Muting Friends Likes

Still addicted…?

In evaluating my solution, although I did do a 180 in my original thinking process, I made decisions that I thought most appropriate for the user given user testing and user research. While this solution does have the potential to just create another endless scroll flow, the goal is that the users are empowered and motivated to efficiently find content through bonding with their friends and their interests.

Tiktok is a young and booming app and who knows how it’s going to change over the course of its lifetime. While keeping the business value of scrolling intact is important, considering the wellness and entertainment of the users should be better approached with than just an “algorithm.”

What I learned

In doing this case study during an unconventional time I learned a few things:

  • A very non-linear process is often required to come to the best conclusions
  • Another iteration never hurts- seriously.
  • Don’t just listen to the user- advocate for the user. I spent most of my time battling between keeping the integrity of the app and what could solve my user’s problem when I should have been advocating for them while keeping the integrity of the app.

I hope you enjoyed reading! I am in no way affiliated with Tiktok. I would like to thank everyone who helped in this case study especially the course staff of Cornell’s Digital Product Design Course. My portfolio can be found here if you want to explore more of my work or just chat!




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Nahbuma Gana

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Nahbuma Gana is junior studying information science at Cornell University. She is a product designer at Cornell Design and Tech Initiative and interested in exploring arguments and virtual design spaces.


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