Leveraging Addictive Design Principles. . . for Good!

Living in the city, you see a lot of food waste. Yesterday I walked by the supermarket and saw 2 cartons of expired fancy imported butter in the trash – waiting for the sanitation trucks to haul them to a landfill. My mind raced with frustration about this blatant display of waste,  disregard for issues of food insecurity, and negative impact on climate.  I rage about the water that grew the grain to feed the cattle, the methane produced by the cows flatulence, the fuel needed to import the butter – refrigerated no less! – from France to New York City. The cardboard box can’t even be recycled!



Many food producers donate excess uneaten food for distribution to those who need it. Unfortunately this is not a ubiquitous practice. Instead more than 1/3 of produced food is wasted simultaneously contributing to climate change, and not feeding people.

My wife knows I frequently rant about this, so she forwarded me an NYT article about services trying to address food waste. I was intrigued by the description of an app called “Too Good to Go“, so I downloaded it.

What is Too Good To Go?

TGTG is a marketplace connecting food retailers with excess food to consumers who will buy it. Grocery stores, bakeries, fast casual restaurants, pizza joints package up leftovers and list them as discounted “surprise bags” on an app.  Consumers browse and reserve surprise bags to pick up at a specific time and place.  They show up, swipe the app to pay the merchant, and collect the goods!

TGTG transactions create an elegant triple win. The consumer scores food at a steep discount, the retailer gets paid for sunk cost on excess food, and the environment is spared wasted energy that went into producing the food and the extra gas produced during decomposition.

I installed the app and now, a couple weeks later, I’ve spent $72, “saved” 12 surprise bags, kept 66lbs of co2 from entering the atmosphere . . . and built 1 new addiction.  My kids have been patient with the creative dinners made from saved food, and the freezer is now full of baked goods!

A New Addiction!

I didn’t expect to react to the app with addictive behavior and I wanted to know why!

First and foremost there’s a lot of terrific food available – at least here in NYC. Seeing discount groceries from Eataly, baked goods from Breads Bakery, pizza from Zazzy’s make my stomach growl!  I also appreciate that these vendors are making an effort to reduce waste.

However, tasty food at a discount is only part of the story.  There are other reasons that I’m checking TGTG obsessively.

third most used app on my phone!  (I recently deleted slack

third most used app on my phone! (I recently deleted slack)

From a design perspective,  TGTG employs many of the same attention grabbing conventions used in casual games, social networks and online retail. These mechanisms nudge me to repeatedly lift the phone and click the teal green TGTG icon.

  1. Narrative –  The language on the app is steeped in adventure. Participants are  “waste warriors”  who are “saving” a “surprise bag” from its demise. Users arent getting a bargain, we’re eating to sustain the world a little longer through the 6th mass extinction. 0ADFF4A0-885D-4013-B335-69ED7452EE25_1_105_c
  2. Random Unpredictability - Our compulsion for checking communication tools – emails, slack or social networks – comes from that dopamine feedback when our post is liked or we get (the occasional) meaningful message.  TGTG successfully leverages this biological reaction by keeping us guessing -  when will the next quality surprise bag “drop?” How many will be available?
  3. Value in Scarcity:  Speaking of quantity, in the age of abundance, limited edition merchandise creates interest and demand. On TGTG Vendors provide limited numbers of discount surprise bags.  Availability is prominently displayed on the feed. If nothing is available, you might see “nothing today”, “check later” or even more specific “return at 6:17.” Oh, I’ll be back!  7C8B2386-FAFE-416F-9F4A-DAAD39382CB7_1_105_c
  4. Deliberately Limited information: notably, the app does not provide push notifications when vendors make bags available*, so we must depend on our own diligence to check manually and avoid fomo! Even with a full freezer, When I see a bag available from Eataly – a fancy grocery store with a terrific bakery – my heart races!

    Eataly bags are available, Pizza time!

    Eataly bags are available, Pizza time!

  5. Time based:  Once the surprise bags are listed, there’s limited time before they are reserved.   Popular vendors sell out in seconds.
  6. Personal Data Tracking: How many bags have I saved? How much money has remained in my pocket? What’s the environmental impact?  All the personal stats I encounter on TGTG represent positive impact! I wish could say the same for my continuous glucose monitor!

    Stats you can feel good about!

    Stats you can feel good about!

  7. Surprise and Delight – each step of the TGTG experience is filled with surprise and delight – for the reasons outlined above. . . but the crown jewel is pick up. Until pick up, we don’t know what we’re going to be eating. And then you get the “unboxing.” Additionally, the moral / environmental impact makes TGTG food even more satisfying.


    We’re eating well tonight. . .and tomorrow . . . and the next day!

*Not surprisingly, while there are deliberately no in-app notifications for when a specific vendors bags are available, there are already 3rd party bots that can provide that service for you. Gaming the game!

Reframing Addictive Design

The combination of these mechanics has led to a new addiction. I constantly check for rare bags, even reserving them just cause I saw they were available. My wife then reminds me to cancel because we have no space left in the freezer. I knew that before reserving, but the temptation was too great!

So what’s the moral here?

Social media designers regularly leverage attention grabbing mechanics to drive “impressions” that increase ad revenue. Casual game designers leverage similar mechanics to get players to cough up a few bucks and unlock extra lives or custom skins. Like social networking and casual games, TGTG manipulates human behavior- and gets us to open our wallets – but in this case guides us toward acting in the best interest of the planets future. TGTG renews my faith in tech to make positive change -  through illustrating how addictive technology can be leveraged to do good.


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