Why TikTok is Addictive: A Product Design and UX Analysis

I try not to open TikTok very often because every time I do, I run into the “Digital Wellbeing” person. After about an hour and a half, they pop up in my feed and encourage me to stop scrolling and go outside, read a book, or contribute to society — anything that makes me put my phone down and stop being a blob. Like how a person with sugar cravings limits the amount of sweets they bring home from the grocery store, I have to actively and consciously avoid TikTok.

I don’t, however, have the same problem with my other social media apps like Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat. What is it about TikTok that’s so addicting? I’m currently taking a UX Design course at DesignLab, so I thought I’d apply what I’m learning to analyze TikTok’s product design and user experience to see what digital addictive substances they pump into this thing (and justify hopping on TikTok for… “research”).

Good products respect their users’ time and effort

One of the first things I noticed about TikTok’s onboarding experience was how disturbingly quick you get to the goods: the content.

As Steve Krug, author of Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability put it: “Nothing important should ever be more than two clicks away.”

TikTok listened.

You can’t see any content without first creating an account but there are many options for signing up in one click by using an existing account like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. Once you’re in, there’s no onboarding. You don’t have to upload a profile picture, you don’t have to select what your interests are, you don’t have to follow some random TikTokers. It uses an AI algorithm to automatically source content that you’re going to love without you having to explicitly say so. As soon as you’re in, there’s already video playing. Tiktok places their content full screen and in your face in potentially one click.

You can get to TikTok content in potentially just one click.

To compare, I created a new account on Instagram and counted a minimum of eight clicks before you can view your first post, from creating a username and password, to uploading a profile picture, to providing your birthday, to following some suggested accounts. I could have alternatively headed over to the “Discover” page, but this still was not available until after the seventh click.

The exact moment while creating an Instagram account when I thought to myself: “Uh… okay, now what?”

“Nothing important should ever be more than two clicks away.”
— Steve Krug

Good products are easy to learn and consistent in their use

Being a younger product, TikTok has the advantage of being able to copy what large successful platforms have already established with design patterns in social media timelines. But it doesn’t mean that TikTok’s path is pitfall-free. Reinventing the wheel is a common mistake that often results in unnecessary friction in adoption. In one of my recent Design Lab lessons, Joshua Porter, creator of the What to Wear daily report and publisher of Bokardo.com encouraged positioning your product against other products to build familiarity:

“The way you position your product, how you talk about it, how you describe it, how you compare it to other products, gives people a framework to understand it… people learn by comparing with something they already understand.

And TikTok users will get social media. “It has filters, like Instagram.” “It’s short videos, like Snapchat.”

According to Omnicore Agency, the average internet user has an account on more than 8 different social media platforms. TikTok seems to embrace that their users are on other platforms in the way that their gestures don’t stray from conventions that people already know and love, such as double-tapping to like a video and swiping up for the next video in the feed. Being an avid Instagram user myself before getting hooked on TikTok, I found it natural to use.

TikTok uses natural and familiar gestures, like swiping up for more content in a social media timeline.

Disruptive products look like toys

The last area I wanted to touch upon today was the actual video creation part of TikTok. Porter, quoted earlier, explains:

“Products that end up being disruptive often start out looking like a toy. They don’t look like much, but what they have is an edge that is more useful in some way than the incumbent products. They’re… easier to use.

Every now and then I hear about a famous TikTok grandma who’s got hundreds of thousands of followers, and that feat is impressive for a reason. Not to say that all grandmas are tech illiterate, but I have to admit that even I, with a computer networking degree, was intimidated by the thought of recording and editing my own TikTok.

For an app that offers complex video editing actions such as adding sounds, filters, timers, and effects, I was pleasantly surprised as I ventured into the camera mode by how non-intimidating it feels. The advanced editing options are demure compared to the big red record button as if to say: “Shhh… Don’t worry about the rest; Just record something.” If that alone isn’t inviting enough, right below the record button is a “Templates” option for an even quicker way to get to something ready-to-post.

Despite the many editing capabilities TikTok has, its highest priority action, record, is made the most prominent in order to simplify the interface.

TikTok creators thus get to familiarize themselves with the editing capabilities a little bit at a time.

Conclusion

When I first started writing my observations down, I hypothesized that it was the AI algorithm alone to blame for my addiction. But if TikTok’s UX was difficult and complicated, then it wouldn’t have any content in the first place for me to get addicted to. TikTok serves both the tangible need of getting content to users fast, and the intangible need of providing a fun place to hang out on the internet.

And with that, I’ll lock up my phone until my TikTok withdrawal symptoms subside.

DesignLab Student, Future UX Designer