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Publicly Available Published by Oldenbourg Wissenschaftsverlag January 14, 2020

Why Do People Use Digital Applications? A Qualitative Analysis of Usage Goals and Psychological Need Fulfillment

  • Sina Zimmermann

    sina.zimmermann@secuso.org

    EMAIL logo
    and Nina Gerber

    nina.gerber@kit.edu

From the journal i-com

Abstract

For many people, digital applications, especially messengers, social networks and cloud services, have become an important part of their daily life. Although most users express privacy concerns regarding the use of digital applications, their concerns do not prevent users from sharing personal information with such applications. A reason for this seemingly paradoxical behavior could be that users pursue certain goals when they are using these applications, which possibly overweigh their privacy concerns. We thus conducted semi-structured interviews with 17 users, with most of them being psychology students, to investigate why they use digital applications (i. e., messengers, social networks, cloud services, digital assistants, and Smart TVs) and what psychological needs they aim to fulfill by using these applications. Our study further included a card sorting task, in which the participants ranked the relevance of ten psychological needs for each of the investigated digital applications they reported to use. Using open coding for the analysis of the interview questions, and a quantitative analysis of the card sorting task, we identified four main psychological needs people aim to fulfill by using digital applications: (1) relatedness-belongingness, (2) competence-effectance, (3) pleasure-stimulation, and (4) autonomy-independence, and four additional psychological needs which are application-specific: (5) security, (6) popularity-influence, (7) self-actualization-meaning, and (8) money-luxury. Besides this, we identified several concerns (e. g., data abuse, privacy invasion, and eavesdropping) and reasons why people refrain from using certain digital applications (i. e., the lack of benefits, malfunction, high costs, and the fear of being eavesdropped on). The fulfillment of the psychological needs seem to overweigh those privacy concerns and play a major role for people’s intention to use digital applications, which is why users will not use alternative privacy friendly applications if these do not allow for the fulfillment of those needs in the same way established applications do.

1 Introduction

For many people, digital applications have increasingly gained importance and now play a major role in their daily life. Even though many of them state being concerned while using digital applications, their privacy concerns do not prevent them from sharing personal information with such applications.

The uses and gratification theory states that people use digital applications if they can gratify their social and psychological needs by using these applications [2]. In line with the self-determination theory, three innate psychological needs form the basis for self-motivation and personality integration: (1) autonomy, (2) competence, and (3) relatedness [10]. Autonomy implies feeling that activities are self-chosen and self-endorsed, competence implies that people want to feel effective in their activities, whereas relatedness refers to feeling a sense of closeness with a number of other people. In addition to these three psychological needs, Sheldon, Elliot, Kim and Kasser [11] postulated seven other psychological needs which are relevant for one’s well-being: (4) self-actualization-meaning (the feeling of developing your best potentials and making life meaningful), (5) security-control (feeling safe and in control of your life), (6) money-luxury (feeling that you have plenty of money to buy most of what you want), (7) influence-popularity (feeling that you are liked, respected, and have influence over others), (8) physical-bodily (feeling that your body is healthy and well-taken care of), (9) self-esteem (feeling that you are a worthy person who is as good as anyone else), and (10) pleasure-stimulation (feeling that you get plenty of enjoyment and pleasure). Note that the psychological needs physical-bodily, security-control, self-esteem-self-respect, relatedness, and self-actualization postulated by Sheldon et al. [11] were based on Maslow’s theory of personality [7], whereas money-luxury and popularity-influence were drawn from Buss [1] and Hogan [6], who postulated inborn motives to attain material and social dominance. The psychological need pleasure-stimulation was derived from Epstein’s model [3] by Sheldon et al. [11], representing a hedonic desire of experiencing pleasure and stimulation. According to Sheldon et al. [11], who investigated which of the ten psychological needs were most fundamental, autonomy-independence, competence-effectance, relatedness-belongingness, and self-esteem were the four most important needs, which supported the finding of the three fundamental needs postulated by the self-determination theory [10]. Further, nowadays, security may also be of importance. Less important were pleasure-stimulation, self-actualization-meaning, popularity-influence, and physical-bodily. Money-luxury was least important according to Sheldon et al. [11]. In a more recent study Hassenzahl, Diefenbach and Göritz [4] identified seven psychological needs, that are most important for users when they are dealing with interactive products. Those are the three fundamental psychological needs autonomy, competence, relatedness and further meaningfulness, pleasure-stimulation, security, and popularity-influence.

Furthermore, Hassenzahl and Roto [5] postulated that people own products because they have things to do like sending messages (do-goals) but also because they are striving for the fulfilment of underlying psychological needs like being related (be-goals). Do-goals and be-goals are related, hence instead of focusing only on immediate do-goals keep in mind that there might be underlying be-goals. In our study we focused on be-goals, i. e., the impact of need fulfillment on the decision to use digital applications, but we also asked the participants about their do-goals and potential privacy concerns.

Several studies that were recently published investigated the effect of psychological needs on people’s Facebook usage [8], [9]. The results of Masur et al. [8] suggest that motives specific to the use of social networks mediate the influence of intrinsic need satisfaction on addictive behavior, i. e., social network addiction is dependent on what intrinsic needs users aim to fulfill by using social networks. For example, social networks are often used for self-presentation, but this behavior can be caused by different underlying needs, e. g., the need for relatedness, autonomy, or competence. The authors found that addictive behavior is associated with the underlying need users aim to satisfy by, e. g., presenting themselves on social networks: A lack of autonomy leads to a higher motivation to use social networks for self-presentation and escapism and thereby leads to addictive behavior, a lack of competence predicts the motive to use social networks for acquiring information and self-presentation, and a lack of relatedness fosters users’ motives to use social networks for self-presentation and meeting new people, with all of the described motives being associated with increased levels of addictive behavior. The findings of Reinecke et al. [9] imply that satisfaction of intrinsic needs is a significant driver of online entertainment. They proposed a theoretical model, which connects extrinsic motivation in terms of perceived social pressure with intrinsic need satisfaction. Both studies followed the self-determination theory and examined intrinsic need satisfaction in consideration of the psychological needs autonomy, competence and relatedness.

However, previous studies focused either on social networks or on interactive technologies in general and almost all of them were restricted to the three fundamental psychological needs postulated by the self-determination theory [10]. None of those studies examined the impact of all seven psychological needs, which have been shown to be relevant for the use of digital products in the context of several specific digital applications. We conducted interviews regarding the use of messengers, social networks, cloud services, digital assistants, and Smart TVs to close this gap, taking into consideration all ten psychological needs postulated by Sheldon et al. [11]. Following grounded theory, we investigated for which reasons or motives those digital applications are used and especially the impact that need satisfaction has in this context. However, as our sample mainly consist of psychology students and is thus biased in terms of age and education, the results do at most generalize to young and well-educated people. Further research is needed to validate our results with a more representative sample.

The remainder of this paper is structured as follows: The second section focusses on our methodological approach, the results are reported in the third section and discussed in the fourth section. Finally, a conclusion is drawn in the fifth section.

2 Methodology

We conducted semi-structured interviews with 17 German users to identify what psychological needs they aim to fulfill by using digital applications, that is, messengers, social networks, cloud services, digital assistants, and Smart TVs, and why they use these digital applications. All interviews were conducted in German, and quotations were translated for this paper.

2.1 Recruitment

The participants were recruited by inviting friends and family members who might be interested in participating. In addition, we sent an invitation e-mail via the mailing list that is used to promote studies among undergraduate psychology students at our university. We then contacted interested participants and made an appointment without mentioning the actual topic of the interview. Instead, they were told the interview would be about their usage of digital applications in order to prevent biasing participants towards the topic of psychological needs. Undergraduate students received course credits, whereas non-student participants participated voluntarily without receiving any compensation. We conducted three pilot interviews to check the questions and the structure of the interview guidelines and the card sorting task. The interview guidelines were improved iteratively, based on the feedback and our own impressions during the pilot interviews.

2.2 Participants

The sample consisted of 17 participants (11 female, 6 male) whose age ranged between 19 and 28 years (M=22.88,SD=2.47). Except for three participants, all participants were undergraduate or graduate psychology (or psychology in IT) students. None of the participants had knowledge of the ten psychological needs postulated by Sheldon et al. [11]. It must be noted that the sample is biased in respect of age and educational background due to a high amount of undergraduate and graduate students. Thus, it might be representative for young and well-educated German users, but not for the general population of German digital application users. Further interviews with older participants and those with a non-academic background should be conducted to examine whether their utilization-needs differ from those observed in this study.

2.3 Study Design

The interviews took between 38 and 67 minutes, with an average of 49 minutes. All interviews included four parts:

  1. Welcome and general instructions: Participants were welcomed and provided with information about the study. They then signed the consent form, which allowed us to record the interview. Afterwards, we informed them in more detail about the study procedure and the supposed purpose of the study (investigating their attitudes towards digital applications). We refrained from telling them the real purpose of the study to prevent biasing them towards privacy or the topic of psychological needs.

  2. Use of digital applications (messengers, social networks, cloud services, digital assistants and Smart TVs): For each digital application the participants were asked whether they use it or not.

    1. If yes, they were asked which kind of, e. g., messengers, they used, for what reasons, in which situations, for which contents, and with whom. They were also asked to name benefits and disadvantages of using each digital application. They were further asked whether they have uninstalled any applications in the past, and if they did, why.

    2. If they reported not to use a digital application, they were asked why or in which specific situation they refrain from using it, (or why they have uninstalled the application). We also asked them to name benefits and disadvantages of the digital application.

    Note that digital assistants were introduced by giving examples (i. e., Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Alexa) and Smart TVs were explained as TVs connected to the Internet, usually with the option to use Smart TV applications.

  3. Presentation of the ten psychological needs: As preparation for the card sorting task, we explained the ten needs postulated by Sheldon et al. [11] to the participants. For this purpose, each need was printed on a card including the name of the need and a brief explanation text.

  4. Card sorting task: In this final part of the study, the participants conducted a ranking of the ten psychological needs with regard to how important these needs are when they use a particular digital application. This ranking was conducted separately for each digital application. We told participants that they only have to include those psychological needs in their ranking that they considered to be relevant for using the respective application, i. e., psychological needs that were not considered to be relevant at all were excluded from the ranking. The ranking order could be changed later on, in case the participants realized retrospectively there was a psychological need missing or of greater importance than they had initially assumed. Additionally, we asked the participants to justify the ranking order for each digital application and to explain what the psychological needs meant to them. Finally, we asked if they wished to change any ranking order and if they have questions left.

2.4 Coding

The interviews were transcribed and responses were analyzed using open coding following the grounded theory approach [12]. We chose this approach due to the exploratory nature of our study. Without using predefined categories, it is possible to consider those reasons for using digital applications and those psychological needs that users aim to fulfill by using these applications that were highly relevant for our participants. Transcripts and audio files were reviewed to identify relevant themes from the participants’ responses. Since the digital applications considered in this study are distinct from each other in nature and thus, the motives for using them also differ between the investigated applications, categories were defined separately for each digital application. The final codebook included seven main categories, i. e., reasons for using each digital application (messengers, social networks, cloud services, digital assistants, and Smart TVs) but also concerns and reasons for refraining from using digital applications. In addition, the main categories relating to the reasons for using the digital applications each included subcategories, which referred to the ten psychological needs postulated by Sheldon et al. [11]. The categories are reported in the results section in more detail. In addition, translated quotes were added where applicable.

2.5 Ethical Considerations

Ethical guidelines for research involving human participants are provided by the ethics committee of our university. All relevant ethical guidelines with respect to research with personal data were fulfilled. Participants were informed about the procedure of the study. Afterwards, they had the opportunity to proceed or abort the interview. They were further informed that they could abandon the interview at any time without stating reasons. In this case, all data collected so far would be deleted. Moreover, we assured that the ascertained data would only be handled by members of our research groups and never given to third parties.

3 Results

In this section, the results of the interview and the card sorting task are presented and, whenever useful, exemplified by quotations from the original transcripts, which were therefore translated.

3.1 Interview

In this subsection, the results of the first part of the interview are reported. The results of the card sorting task are reported in Section 3.2.

3.1.1 Reasons for Using Digital Applications

We identified various subcategories for the five main categories (reasons for using the five digital applications), each reflecting psychological needs participants aim to fulfill by using the digital application.

Messengers

The most frequently stated reasons for using messengers referred to the psychological need relatedness-belongingness, which means having regular intimate contact with people rather than feeling lonely and uncared for. For instance, almost all participants mentioned that they used messengers for the purpose of communicating, exchanging news (“for me it’s the purpose of messengers, to connect and exchange with people” (P2) “chatting, making appointments, exchanging any news” (P16)) and daily-life-contents such as well-being (“arranging meeting places, short feedback about one’s constitution” (P4)), but also to stay in touch especially with people abroad (“keeping in touch, although being in different countries” (P11) “my family is often scattered all over the world, hence keeping in contact” (P17)). Moreover, some participants mentioned using voice-chats („voice-chats were introduced, since then I’m using them, because it is time-saving to explain complicated contents“ (P9)) and group-chats (“I’m using WhatsApp especially for group-chats, to organize with several people simultaneously” (P11)).

Additionally, many reasons for using messengers referred to the psychological need competence-effectance, which means feeling capable and effective in your actions, rather than feeling incompetent or ineffective. In connection with this psychological need, some participants stated that they used messengers to communicate in workgroups (“I have even a work-group, for organizational agreements” (P6)), for information-exchange in general and, besides this, for organizational contents in general (“to organize anything, e.g. presentations” (P10)) or arranging appointments, which was often mentioned (“to coordinate appointments” (P1) “to organize meetings” (P5) “making appointments” (P9)).

The third most frequently stated reasons for using messengers referred to the psychological need pleasure-stimulation, which is defined as the feeling to get plenty of enjoyment and pleasure rather than feeling bored and understimulated by life. Some participants mentioned to use messengers for exchanging media like sending images (“fast and uncomplicated exchange of files, images, videos and sounds is a nice feature, too” (P7)) or funny things/stuff/content ([…] having fun together, by sending funny images” (P11) […] when something funny happened (P12)).

Finally, some reasons participants named for using messengers referred to the psychological need autonomy-independence, which is defined as feeling like you are the cause of your own actions rather than feeling that external forces or pressures are the cause of your actions. Concerning autonomy-independence, many participants stated to use messengers since it is a rather fast and simple opportunity for communication ([…] fast communication, without latency due to being an instant-messenger (P4)” “quite fast and easy usage is a benefit of messengers” (P10)).

To sum up, messengers are used for fast and simple communication (private and in workgroups), exchanging news and staying in touch, but also for organization and exchanging media.

Social Networks

Similar to messengers, the most frequently mentioned reasons for using social networks are associated with the psychological need relatedness-belongingness. Many participants reported to use social networks in order to be informed about friends abroad (“gaining insight into the life of people, which I have met abroad, without communicating constantly” (P8)), keep in touch (“keeping in touch with people, whom we can’t see often” (P6) “we had a school class group […] the group still exists and we organize class reunions” (P4)), for communication in general ([…] communication with others” (P4)), but also to establish contact with acquaintances of whom the participants do not have any further contact information. (“[I’m using] Facebook to reach people known by sight, […] without having close contact which means that we never exchanged phone numbers” (P9)). Furthermore, some participants mentioned exchanging with like-minded people by using groups (“[reading contents] in psychological professional groups” (P16)).

Besides this, many participants stated to use social networks for reasons associated with the psychological need pleasure-stimulation, i. e., looking at posted images or posted news, being entertained and hence amused (“[stimulation is satisfied] by the abundance of images and information” (P2) “I’m using Facebook for the purpose of watching videos or reading articles and Instagram for having a look at images and Instagram-stories of others” (P9)). Moreover, some participants reported to search for inspiration (“I’m looking at beautiful pictures, thereby drawing inspiration from them” (P15)) and for events ([…] for organizing a party… or getting events recommended which take place nearby” (P14)).

Also, some participants said they used social networks for reasons connected with the need competence-effectance, such as job hunting ([…] for job hunting and being present on the job market” (P7)) or contents relating to their studies like sharing files or being informed ([…] sharing files, establishing groups to coordinate projects in groups of fellow students” (P1) “I’m searching for experiments in order to get course-credits or other information” (P5)).

In contrast to messengers, some reasons for using social networks are associated with the psychological need popularity-influence, which is defined as feeling that you are liked, respected, and have influence over others rather than feeling like a person whose advice or opinions nobody is interested in. Accordingly, some participants explained they liked the wide range of social networks, allowing a rapid dissemination of news and reaching many people all over the world (“social networks are functional for companies and, indeed, for startups, […] for events, since [social networks] have a wide range in a short space of time” (P7)) and the possibility to comment on and share posts or post something themselves ([…] being able to post things publicly, not directed to certain people” (P4) “I was a fan of a famous YouTuber, thus I posted something on his pin board and he actually replied to my post!” (P13)). Additionally, many participants mentioned self-portrayal, which relates to the needs popularity-influence and self-esteem, as being of importance for using social networks ([…] since self-serving self-portraying is possible […]. It should be suited to increase my self-esteem” (P8) “In principle, Instagram is used for self-portraying” (P2)).

To sum up, social networks are used for communication and contact with people worldwide, exchanging with like-minded people in groups, watching photos, self-presentation, posting and sharing, organizing events, job hunting and file sharing.

Cloud Services

Most participants stated to use cloud services for reasons associated with the psychological need competence-effectance. They reported to use cloud services mainly in a professional context, i. e., for storing educational material and documents concerning their studies (“I’m using Google Drive and Dropbox, but mainly for documents concerning the university, not for private purposes” (P8) “Mainly for university things, for sharing contents of lectures, sharing notes and exchanging past exam documents” (P11)), for exchanging files in groups ([…] Google Drive, for working in project groups” (P9) “I used [cloud services] for contents concerning the university, […] it was a simple way to collect files and working on a project together” (P17)), but also for the organization of their work and in work-related contexts (“I started using OneDrive, as it was required for work” (P3)).

In addition, nearly all participants reported to use cloud services for sharing files ([…] facilitates sharing files with friends” (P11)) and enabling other people to access their files, especially if they wanted to share them with a large amount of people (“the advantage of Dropbox is that one can upload files, thereby enabling many other people to access them” (P5) “It is possible to provide many files for many people” (P12)), which is associated with the need relatedness-belongingness.

Referring to the psychological need autonomy-independence, many participants highlighted to use cloud services for synchronizing several devices ([…] to synchronize computer and laptop” (P3)) and for making data location-independently available (“I’m using cloud services for making data available on different devices, independent of the location”(P1)“[…] available anywhere, as long as I have access to the internet. I can access it on any computer, as long as I remember my password and username” (P3)).

Lastly, some participants mentioned to use cloud services for reasons associated with the psychological need pleasure-stimulation, such as storing images and exchanging images, e. g., with travel partners (“watching photos others have taken […], therefore downloading photos”(P2)[…] to send photos, for example, exchanging photos with friends whom I’ve spent my holidays with” (P15)).

To sum up, cloud services are used for storing and sharing files, mostly in professional contexts, synchronizing several devices, making data location-independently available, but also for storing and exchanging private photos.

Digital Assistants

Although less participants reported to use digital assistants, some participants emphasized benefits of using digital assistants, such as the opportunity to make fast, voice-based entries (“It can facilitate many things by making fast voice entries […] (P5)) and thus convenience due to using voice-based entries instead of using the keyboard ([…] there is no need for typing by hand. That is a way to get information very fast”(P13)[…] it is sometimes more convenient and comfortable and maybe helpful in some situations” (P16) “if one is lazy about typing manually, in that case one can ask Siri” (P17)). Those benefits are associated with the psychological need competence-effectance.

Regarding the psychological need pleasure-stimulation, some participants stated to use or have used digital assistants for fun, i. e., by asking Siri funny things (“Therefore, I would tend to not use such [digital assistants] seriously, however, it is a funny matter” (P7) “At the time when I got my iPhone, I asked Siri a few things just for fun” (P9) “It was a funny gadget, but not very useful” (P15)).

To sum up, digital assistants are used for fast voice-entries, convenient handling, and asking things for fun.

Smart TVs

Most participants mentioned reasons for using Smart TVs that are associated with the need pleasure-stimulation. Especially the comfortable and easy use of streaming services (“I can access streaming services without having to connect my computer […],”(P4) “Just recently I bought a TV and I intentionally chose a Smart TV, since I use the television only for streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime” (P17)) or the possibility to watch videos (“for the purpose of watching videos” (P5)) were the most important benefits of or motives for using a Smart TV.

The second most frequently reported reasons for using a Smart TV are associated with the psychological need autonomy-independence. Similarly, some participants emphasized the benefit of being independent of television programs ([…] being independent of the television program, using what I want […](P5)“It is possible to choose what one prefers watching” (P17)) and having the opportunity to stream shows and movies one has missed watching via media libraries (“I can watch movies, whenever I would like to, independent of transmission time, since I have access to the ARD media library” (P3)).

In contrast to all other digital applications investigated in this study, the psychological need money-luxury, defined as feeling that you have plenty of money to buy most of what you want rather than feeling like a poor person who has no nice possessions, matters in the context of Smart TVs. Some participants reported to have bought a Smart TV to own an extraordinary device (“Smart TVs are more expensive […] anyway I feel great as a result of owning a Smart TV” (P17)) and for having a large screen as compared to streaming via computer (“Smart TVs are comfortable due to the fact that they are usually larger than computer screens” (P6)).

To sum up, Smart TVs are used for streaming services, watching videos, being independent of television programs, but also simply to own an extraordinary device.

3.1.2 Concerns and Disadvantages

Some participants also mentioned concerns and disadvantages of using digital applications, of which some were application-specific and some referred to the general use of digital applications.

General

Most often, the participants mentioned to be concerned about data abuse ([…] that nobody buys or orders things on my behalf, that nobody gives my name and my data away” (P7) “In the end, they might even sell data to health insurance companies or other insurance companies and hence you can’t take out insurance […] (P9)), eavesdropping on data (“I don’t need a messenger spying on data on my cell phone” (P1) “I’m using Telegram for private discussions since I get somewhat paranoid about someone unauthorized eavesdropping” (P14)) or unauthorized collection of data (“One more device that records movements and decisions, somehow collects data or is at least connected [to the Internet]” (P8) “There is no guarantee that it won’t be eavesdropped or collected somehow” (P15)). Further some participants stated to be concerned about hacking attacks (“The entire hacking attacks, where photos were leaked […](P1) “Of course, nothing is completely secure, of course, everyone is able to hack into [cloud services]” (P6)).

Additionally, some participants emphasized that some applications require a large number of permissions (“The cell phone asks for a great number of permissions, which have to be accepted. In that case one is unaware of what happens to one’s data” (P1)).

Moreover, some participants named (personalized) advertisements as a negative consequence of using digital applications, often associated with the use of social networks ([…] maybe I can’t see it anymore because it is ‘swallowed up’ by advertisements”(P2)[…] Facebook is using data for commercial purposes, this has to be confirmed by accepting the general terms and conditions, thus many advertisement data will be collected” (P4)).

Messengers

Some participants stated that it could be problematic to be accessible around-the-clock, especially in the context of being available for employers (“If using [messengers] for work, one is accessible at any time” (P3) “It is a disadvantage to be accessible, especially for employers, 24/7 in theory” (P6)).

Furthermore, referring to communication in groups within messengers, many participants described that communication in groups is often ineffective and leads to nothing (“regarding group-chats, it is often the case that it is a weird process of communication, leading to nothing and no one feels responsible” (P2) “It is often perplexing, what is written, and often less effective than it would be to have real conversations” (P14)).

Social Networks

Regarding social networks, some participants mentioned two serious concerns. These are cyber-mobbing and emerging jealousy ([…] jealousy could emerge, when one watches photos” (P2)). One participant added to be concerned about and annoyed of social networks using location data for personalized recommendations (“Using my location for personalized recommendations of people which you have never seen before, simply because we are at the same location, is annoying” (P10))

Furthermore, some participants mentioned that using social networks leads to a waste of time as a negative consequence ([…] wasting too much time”(P12)[…] wasting much time with watching photos, forgetting about the time while doing nothing useful” (P15)).

Cloud Services

Some participants emphasized a disadvantage of cloud services, which is, conversely, stated as an advantage, namely that cloud services are only accessible when connected to the internet. Without internet connection, there is no opportunity to make data available (“Without internet connection, it is not possible to access your stuff. If you use a USB Stick, files are available at any time” (P1)).

Smart TVs

With regard to the usage of Smart TVs, some participants stated they would be concerned about privacy invasion, especially due to the fact that such devices usually include a microphone and a camera which could be misused for recording them without their permission (“All devices with built-in microphone and camera can be hacked, as a result your privacy is threatened” (P13)).

3.1.3 Reasons for Refraining from Using Digital Applications

Furthermore, if the participants reported not to use a digital application, we asked them why they refrained from using that application. Many participants reported not to use digital assistants due to malfunctions these applications typically suffer from (“I prefer typing by hand, because in my opinion they often malfunction” (P14)) or feeling embarrassed while using them in public ([…] in the presence of others I would feel embarrassed using them”(P2)[…] when being in public I would feel stupid using them” (P11)). Besides this, almost all participants said that there was no need for using digital assistants (“Until now, there has been no need to use [digital assistants]” (P11) “I don’t need them” (P17)). Some participants said that they mainly refrain from using Smart TVs due to the high of these devices ([…] costs, the fact that it’s still too expensive”(P8)[…] don’t want to spend money on Smart TVs” (P11)).

In general, some participants reported to refrain from using various digital applications for reasons of data protection (“Until now, I’m not using digital assistants, since I am concerned that such applications always listen” (P1)) or because they would fear being eavesdropped on (“Microphone and camera… in theory it is always possible to be eavesdropped on” (P15)). Additionally, one participant stated not to use social networks like Facebook due to the belief that it is unethical to earn money by selling data (“People earn money in this way, I don’t like the manner how they earn money, it is not ethical” (P7)).

3.2 Card Sorting

We describe the results of the card sorting task in this subsection.

3.2.1 Messengers

All participants stated to use at least one messenger. Similar to the results of the first half of the interview, relatedness appeared to be the most important psychological need for using messengers. Security, however, was, according to the card sorting task, the second most important psychological need. Considering the results of the first half of the interview, this result is surprising. As anticipated, the psychological needs pleasure-stimulation, autonomy-independence and competence-effectance were also reported to be important needs participants aim to fulfill by using messengers. Least important was money-luxury, which also only two participants included in their ranking at all. Note that participants were able to exclude psychological needs they thought were not important when using the particular application from their ranking, as we assumed that participants do not always pursue the satisfaction of all psychological needs when using a particular application.

Aside from that, only one participant mentioned physical thriving as a psychological need one aims to be fulfilled by using messengers. Means and standard deviations of the ranked psychological needs for messengers are illustrated in Figure 1. Means around 10 represent the most important psychological need for using the respective application, whereas means around 1 represent the least important psychological need for the use of this application. Further, the number in brackets indicates how many participants included the psychological need in their ranking and, hence, considered it to play a (more or less important) role when they use the application.

Figure 1 
                Psychological needs associated with the usage of messengers.
Figure 1

Psychological needs associated with the usage of messengers.

3.2.2 Social Networks

All participants, except one, reported to use at least one social network. In line with the interview results, the most important psychological need for using social networks was relatedness, followed by pleasure-stimulation. Surprisingly, regarding the card sorting task, self-actualization meaning, security, self-esteem, and autonomy-independence appeared to be more important for the participants than competence-effectiveness and popularity-influence, which had been identified as two of the most important psychological needs in the interviews. Like for messengers, physical thriving and money-luxury were the least important psychological needs associated with using social networks, with those psychological needs receiving the lowest mean values and being included in the ranking by the fewest participants. Means and standard deviations of the ranked psychological needs for social networks are depicted in Figure 2 (see Section 3.2.1 for an explanation of the figure).

Figure 2 
                Psychological needs associated with the usage of social networks.
Figure 2

Psychological needs associated with the usage of social networks.

3.2.3 Cloud Services

Like for social networks, all participants except one stated to use at least one cloud service. As expected, competence was the most important psychological need participants aim to be fulfilled by using cloud. The second most important need was security, a result that is surprising with respect to the interview results. Autonomy-independence and relatedness appeared to be important psychological needs, consistent with the findings of the first half of the interview. The card sorting task did not reflect the interview results regarding pleasure-stimulation, which was defined as storing and exchanging images in the interviews, and thus considered to be an important psychological need during the interview part of the study, but only rated as medium important in the card sorting task.

None of the participants considered the psychological need physical thriving to be of importance when using cloud services. Self-esteem and popularity influence were rated to be less important psychological needs participants aimed to fulfill by using cloud services. The means and standard deviations of the ranked psychological needs are depicted in Figure 3.

Figure 3 
                Psychological needs associated with the usage of cloud services.
Figure 3

Psychological needs associated with the usage of cloud services.

3.2.4 Digital Assistants

Only one participant out of seventeen participants stated to use digital assistants actively. Note that more participants talked about digital assistants in the interview part, who had used digital assistants in the past but stopped using them and thus did not conduct a card sorting for this application. The participant who reported to use digital assistants considered security-control and pleasure-stimulation to be of importance for this usage. Due to the limited sample size, the results for digital assistants should not be interpreted or generalized.

Figure 4 
                Most important psychological needs for each digital application. Please note that, due to the small sample size, the results regarding digital assistants and Smart TVs should be handled with caution.
Figure 4

Most important psychological needs for each digital application. Please note that, due to the small sample size, the results regarding digital assistants and Smart TVs should be handled with caution.

3.2.5 Smart TVs

Only five participants reported to use a Smart TV. Consistent with the findings of the interview, the psychological need pleasure-stimulation was ranked as most relevant, followed by the need autonomy-independence. Interestingly, the third most important psychological need appeared to be competence, which was mentioned by two participants, referring to the personal ability to use the features of a Smart TV. As anticipated by the interview, the fourth psychological need considered to be of importance was money-luxury, which was mentioned by all participants. Note that, due to the limited sample size, the results for Smart TVs should not be interpreted or generalized.

3.2.6 Summary

To summarize the card sorting task results, means and standard deviations of the most relevant psychological needs of all digital applications investigated are illustrated in Figure 4. In general, relatedness, pleasure-stimulation, autonomy and competence were the most important psychological needs over all digital applications investigated. While relatedness is the most important psychological need related to the use of messengers and social networks, it is not among the most important needs associated with using cloud services, digital assistants, and Smart TVs. This makes sense, considering that messengers and social networks were primarily designed for the purpose of interacting with other people. Pleasure-stimulation, on the other hand, is an important psychological need for the use of all digital applications investigated, except for cloud services, which indeed seem to fall into a special category of applications, which are only used for task fulfillment, but not for pleasure. Further, the regular communication with other people via messengers seems to give people a feeling of security. The use of social networks, however, is rather associated with personal grow, i. e., self-actualization meaning. Please note that, due to the small sample size, the results regarding digital assistants and Smart TVs should be handled with caution.

4 Discussion

The goal of the present study was to identify what psychological needs users aim to fulfill by using digital applications and what goals they pursue by using these applications. It should be noted, however, that our results only hold true for a young, well-education sample, which might be not only overly tech-savvy, but also pursue certain goals when using digital applications that are specifically related to their life situation. Hence, for this kind of sample, psychological needs such as competence-effectance or pleasure-stimulation might be more important than for an older, non-academic sample, where other factors like security or money-luxury might gain importance. The results described in this section as well as the conclusions drawn from them should thus be considered as preliminary and only representative for a particular sample of young, well-educated German users.

In the interview part of the study, the reasons stated most frequently for using messengers referred to the psychological needs relatedness-belongingness, competence-effectance, pleasure-stimulation, and autonomy-independence. In the card sorting task, relatedness-belongingness was also rated to be the most important psychological need related to the use of messengers, followed by security, pleasure-stimulation, autonomy-independence, and competence-effectance.

Regarding the use of social networks, participants mainly referred to the psychological needs relatedness-belongingness, pleasure-stimulation, competence-effectance, and popularity-influence in the interview. Likewise, in the card sorting task, the psychological needs relatedness-belongingness, pleasure-stimulation, self-actualization-meaning, security, and self-esteem were rated to be most important, followed by autonomy-independence, competence-effectance, and popularity-influence, which is surprising, considering the interview results.

The reasons and motives for using cloud services that were stated most frequently in the interview are related to the psychological needs competence-effectance, relatedness-belongingness, autonomy-independence, and pleasure-stimulation. Besides this, the card sorting task yielded a similar result. In the card sorting task, competence-effectance was rated to be most important, followed by security, autonomy-independence, and relatedness-belongingness.

Just a few participants reported to use digital assistants. All of these participants, however, reported to use digital assistants for reasons associated with the psychological needs competence-effectance and pleasure-stimulation. Participants who reported not to use digital assistants also referred to these two psychological needs when asked about potential benefits of using digital assistants. Only active users of a digital application were asked to conduct the card sorting for that application, which was only one participant in the case of digital assistants. That participant rated the psychological needs security and pleasure-stimulation to be most important. All other participants reported to have never used digital assistants or stopped using them for several reasons. Due to the small sample size, the card sorting results for digital assistants should not be interpreted or generalized.

In the interviews, participants mainly reported to use Smart TVs because of reasons referring to the psychological needs pleasure-stimulation, autonomy-independence, and money-luxury. In line with the interview results, the psychological needs pleasure-stimulation, autonomy-independence, competence-effectance, and money-luxury were also rated to be most important in the card sorting task. Unexpectedly, competence-effectance was the third most important psychological need according to the card sorting task. However, competence-effectance was only included by two participants in their ranking, whereas pleasure-stimulation, autonomy-independence, and money-luxury was included by at least four participants. Once again, note that a total of five participants reported to use a Smart TV actively, hence, the results of the card sorting task are based on the ranking of only five participants and should be interpreted with caution.

Although pleasure-stimulation, relatedness-belongingness, competence-effectance, and autonomy-independence seem to be the most important psychological needs for using all digital applications investigated in this study, our results showed that the psychological needs one wants to fulfill by using digital applications differ between the various types of digital applications. There is a huge difference in the features of the digital applications investigated, namely, messengers, social networks, cloud services, digital assistants, and Smart TVs. Hence, there is also a huge difference in the specific reasons and motives which were stated by the participants for using each of the digital applications investigated.

4.1 Theoretical Implications

Our findings regarding the most important psychological needs associated with the use of digital applications are in line with the results from other studies [8], [9], which were based on the self-determination theory [10]. The self-determination theory argues that three psychological needs form the basis for self-motivation and personality integration: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Our results further add pleasure-stimulation to the list of the most important psychological needs. Our findings support at least four psychological needs (relatedness, competence, autonomy, and pleasure-stimulation) out of the seven psychological needs that Hassenzahl et al. [4] considered to be important for users who are dealing with interactive products. Furthermore, the results of the card sorting task provide some evidence for the importance of the psychological need security, which was often rated to be important, independent of the specific digital application. There is also evidence for the importance of popularity-influence and meaningfulness, although those needs seems to be only relevant in the context of using social networks. Overall, our results suggest that at least five of the seven psychological needs postulated by Hassenzahl et al. are important for using digital applications in general, whereas two further psychological need – namely popularity influence and meaningfulness (also called self-actualization meaning) – seem to be important in the context of using social networks.

The approach of ten candidate psychological needs [11] postulates that autonomy, competence, relatedness, and self-esteem are the most important psychological needs, followed by security. Pleasure-stimulation, self-actualization-meaning, popularity-influence, and physical-bodily, however, were shown to be less important in the study conducted by Sheldon et al. [11], and money-luxury was found to be least important. Contrary to this, our results suggest that self-esteem is not one of the most important psychological needs, as our participants did only include it in their ranking during the card sorting task concerning the use of social networks, but not in the context of all other digital applications investigated. However, this result could also have been caused by social desirability. Furthermore, our result imply that pleasure-stimulation is a very important psychological need associated with the use of digital applications, even more important than security, which is contrary to Sheldon et al.’s study results. Although our data showed that money-luxury is the least important psychological need associated with the use of most of the applications investigated, there is one case in which money-luxury can become an important psychological need, i. e., in the context of Smart TVs, which are expensive and can thus express prosperity.

In conclusion, the most important psychological needs in the context of using digital applications seem to be relatedness-belongingness, competence-effectance, pleasure-stimulation, autonomy-independence, and, according to the card sorting task results, security. Relatedness-belongingness is most relevant concerning the use of messengers and social networks, but, in a broader sense, also concerning the use of cloud services. There are several features that messengers and social networks have in common and that are closely related to the psychological need relatedness-belongingness, i. e., keeping in touch with friends in distance, communicating with others and exchanging information and news. Relatedness is also relevant for the use of cloud-services, since these are used to share data and provide access to data for other people or groups, a goal that is also closely connected to the psychological need competence-effectance. Competence-effectance is related to the exchange of contents and data in a professional contexts, i. e., for job-related data or collaboration in project groups and the preparation of exams. Participants mainly reported to use cloud-services, but also social networks and messengers for these tasks. The psychological need autonomy-independence seems to be important in the context of using cloud-services, but also concerning the use of digital assistants and Smart TVs. Regarding the use of cloud-services, autonomy is related to the feature that data is available anytime and not temporally or spatially limited, whereas in the context of Smart TVs, autonomy refers to being independent of the television program since films and series can be easily streamed at any time using the various streaming services and media centers of TV channels. Furthermore, the psychological need pleasure-stimulation was found to be highly relevant for the use of all digital applications, except for cloud-services. Regarding messengers and social networks, pleasure-stimulation is related to watching videos and pictures that were posted by other people or sharing videos and pictures with others via private messages or by posting them. In the context of Smart TVs, pleasure-stimulation also refers to the availability of streaming services and media centers, which can be used, e. g., to watch series or films one missed to watch when they were broadcast. Furthermore, in the context of digital assistants the voice entry feature is related to pleasure-stimulation, which is satisfied by asking digital assistants funny stuff. Besides this, security is a relevant psychological need in the context of cloud services because the data is available whenever one is connected to the internet. Moreover, security is also relevant in the context of messengers, sine participants reported to use them to stay informed and keep oneself up-to-date, and hence feeling safe and in control of their life. Additionally, there are psychological needs that can become relevant depending on the specific digital application that is used, i. e., popularity-influence, self-actualization-meaning, and money-luxury. Popularity-influence and self-actualization-meaning were relevant psychological needs in terms of social network usage, due to social network-specific features, i. e., the opportunity for self-portrayal and to reach a broad range of people when sharing contents or commenting on posts. Money-luxury is a relevant psychological need for the specific context of Smart TVs, which is related to high purchase costs and the luxury to use paid streaming services or pay TV instead of free TV.

Overall, our findings support the needs-theory postulated by Hassenzahl et al. [4] who identified autonomy, competence, relatedness, meaningfulness, pleasure-stimulation, security, and popularity-influence as important psychological needs for users who are dealing with interactive products. Besides this, our results add money-luxury as a relevant psychological need for the specific context of using Smart TVs.

4.2 Practical Implications

Taking into consideration the most frequently named privacy concerns, i. e., data abuse, eavesdropping on data, hacking attacks, large number of permissions, usage of location based data, and privacy invasion, users pursue certain goals when using digital applications, which seem to overweigh their privacy concerns. Most users aim to fulfill especially the psychological needs relatedness, pleasure-stimulation, competence, and autonomy by using digital applications. However, the fulfillment of these psychological needs only overweigh privacy concerns when users estimate the usage of the digital application as beneficial, functional, and not expensive. The most common reasons participants reported for refraining from using digital assistants were malfunction or the lack of benefits and, consequently, no necessity of using digital assistants. Besides this, the reasons to refrain from using Smart TVs, which were stated most frequently were the high purchase costs and the fear of being eavesdropped on. Once purchased, the satisfaction of the two psychological needs pleasure-stimulation and autonomy seem to overweigh the concern of being eavesdropped on, too.

Privacy researchers who aim to develop privacy interventions, as well as designers of privacy friendly applications, should bear in mind that need fulfillment, i. e., to be stimulated, to feel related and competent but also feel that activities are self-chosen and self-endorsed plays a major role for people’s intention to use several digital applications. Users will not use alternative privacy friendly applications that do not enable the fulfillment of at least these four psychological needs. Instead, users will continue to use the established applications.

Apart from relatedness and pleasure stimulation, some participants stated that they would wish for messengers to fulfill their need for security. Therefore, product designers should take the inclusion of features that might enable users to feel more secure, e. g., reminding users to get in touch with particular people at regular intervals, into consideration. In terms of data security, integrating a powerful encryption can also increase the feeling of security. In the context of social networks, users wish to develop their potential and make life more meaningful. Since some users are concerned about wasting time in social networks and complain that interesting information are “swallowed up” by advertisements, product designers of social networks should focus on features that make it easier to find interesting and meaningful content and hence prevent users from wasting time in social networks. In the context of cloud services, the psychological need security plays a significant role. Note that in this case most participants interpreted security as having data available anytime, which is closely related to the psychological need autonomy-independence. Some participants described the fact that data is only available when one is connected to the internet to be a disadvantage of cloud services. Cloud services that do not already provide the option to make data available offline, i. e., locally on the users’ devices, could add this possibility to their service. Regarding digital assistants and Smart TVs, many participants reported being concerned about privacy invasion or fear being eavesdropped on, which seems to overweigh the satisfaction of the psychological needs pleasure-stimulation and autonomy for both digital applications. This might be due to the fact that both applications have a microphone and, in addition, some Smart TVs have a camera, which could always be recording. Product designers should at least make it more transparent when and why the digital application is recording. Besides this, better privacy-settings are needed, e. g., to deactivate the recording when it is not intended.

4.3 Limitations

This study suffers from several limitations, which should be kept in mind when drawing conclusions based on the results. First, our results are based on a small sample size, especially concerning the card sorting task, which only those participants conducted who reported to actively use the respective digital application. This led to a very small sample size concerning the use of digital assistants and Smart TVs and therefore threatens the validity of the results for these applications. Second, since most of our participants were students of psychology, our sample is most likely skewed, i. e., younger, higher educated and mostly female, which is not representative for the general population. Third, due to the qualitative approach of our study, it is not directly possible to draw conclusions about the significance of particular psychological needs regarding the use of a specific digital application. However, the results of the card sorting task show at least a tendency, as participants provided a ranking of the importance of each psychological need for using each digital application they reported to use actively. Yet, participants were allowed to include all psychological needs that they considered to be important when using the respective application, independent of whether this need is actually fulfilled by using the application. Instead, each psychological need could also be expressed as something participants would wish to be satisfied by using the application. Hence, it was difficult to distinguish afterwards which needs participants considered to be fulfilled by using the application and which ones participants would wish to be fulfilled. Further, each participant has his or her own concept of each psychological need, even though all participants were presented the same definitions of the psychological needs. Hence, different concepts could have led to different rankings between the participants. This could also be the reason that the mean values for a particular application do not differ much, i. e., that there is no clear preference in terms of what psychological need is considered to be more important than another psychological need. However, it could also be that all psychological needs are of relative importance for the use of digital applications and further research is needed to draw definite conclusions about the importance of different psychological needs.

4.4 Future Work

Quantitative studies are needed to determine in more detail which psychological needs are considered to be more important than others. These studies should especially focus on how the importance of psychological need fulfillment differs between the different types of digital applications. Additionally, a more representative sample is needed, to obtain more general insights into psychological needs users want to fulfil by using digital applications, since the general population might differ from young people in their type of use.

5 Conclusion

Investigating 17 users of digital applications, with most of them being psychology students, we found that relatedness, competence, pleasure-stimulation, and autonomy-independence are the most important psychological needs people aim to fulfill by using digital applications (i. e., messengers, social networks, cloud services, digital assistants, and Smart TVs). Further, there are four additional psychological needs, which can be relevant in the context of using specific applications: security (for cloud services and messengers), popularity-influence (for social networks), self-actualization-meaning (for social networks), and money-luxury (for Smart TVs). The fulfillment of those psychological needs seem to overweigh privacy concerns (i. e., data abuse, eavesdropping on data, hacking attacks, large number of permissions, and privacy invasion), at least when users estimate the usage of the digital application to be beneficial, functional, and not expensive. Therefore, privacy researchers and designers of privacy friendly applications should bear in mind that the fulfillment of several needs plays a major role for people’s intention to use digital applications and hence, people will not use alternative privacy friendly applications that do not allow for at least these four psychological needs to be fulfilled. Instead, users will continue to use the established applications.

About the authors

Sina Zimmermann

sina.zimmermann@secuso.org

Nina Gerber

nina.gerber@kit.edu

Appendix A

Part I – Interview (translated to English, the original interviews were held in German):

  1. Messengers: Do you use technology like messengers to communicate with others?

    1. If yes:

      Which ones?

      Why/for which purpose?

      In which occasions?

      Which contents?

      With whom?

      Are there any differences regarding which messenger you use?

      Have you changed your use of messengers?

      When/for what reason did you stop using messengers?

      Did you uninstall messengers or stopped using a messenger?

      Which messenger and why?

      Which advantages do you see in the usage of messengers?

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of messengers?

    2. If not:

      Why not?

      Why did you uninstall it?

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of messengers?

      Are there, nevertheless, any advantages in the usage of messengers?

  2. Social networks: Do you use social networks?

    1. If yes:

      Which ones?

      Why/for which purpose?

      In which occasions?

      With whom?

      Have you changed your use of messengers?

      Which advantages do you see in the usage of social networks?

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of social networks?

    2. If not:

      Why did you stop using social networks?

      Why haven’t you registered yourself?

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of social networks?

      Are there, nevertheless, any advantages in the usage of social networks?

  3. Cloud services: Do you use cloud services?

    1. If yes:

      Which ones?

      Why/for which purpose?

      In which occasions/in which not?

      Which advantages do you see in the usage of cloud services?

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of cloud services?

    2. If not:

      Why not?

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of cloud services?

      Are there, nevertheless, any advantages in the usage of cloud services?

  4. Digital assistants: Do you use digital assistants e. g. Siri, Google Now, Cortana, Alexa, …?

    1. If yes:

      Which one?

      Why/for which purpose?

      In which occasions?

      Which advantages do you see in the usage of digital assistants?

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of digital assistants?

    2. If not:

      Why not?

      (Why did you disable your digital assistant?)

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of digital assistants?

      Are there, nevertheless, any advantages in the usage of digital assistants?

  5. Smart TVs: Do you use a Smart TV?

    1. If yes:

      Why do you use a Smart TV?

      What are you doing with the Smart TV?

      Which advantages do you see in the usage of Smart TVs?

      In your opinion, which negative consequences can result from using Smart TVs?

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of Smart TVs?

    2. If not:

      Why not?

      Which disadvantages do you see in the usage of Smart TVs?

      In your opinion, which negative consequences can result from using Smart TVs?

      Are there, nevertheless, any advantages in the usage of Smart TVs?

Part II – Ranking of the psychological needs [11]

The same questions were asked separately for each digital application:

  1. Why is it important to fulfill… (need)?

  2. What does (need) mean to you?

  3. What fulfills (need)?

  4. Which actions/events fulfill (need)?

  5. Can you give an example, where (need) is fulfilled?

  6. Is (need) already fulfilled or is it rather a wish than a need that is already fulfilled?

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Published Online: 2020-01-14
Published in Print: 2019-11-18

© 2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston

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