Inherent Power and Responsibility in Our Day-to-Day
Designers wield an immense amount of power, whether they realize it or not. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that power is present, especially in conditions where designers may lean more towards the side of implementation rather than the creation of something new and original.
Design is mostly manipulative. Jon Kolko states, “Interaction design is largely about removing cognitive friction or producing a happy path — in order to manipulate someone into realizing a goal. That type of manipulation is typically called ‘helping,’ and it is often, actually, helpful.” Manipulation generally carries a negative connotation, but as Jon points out manipulation doesn’t have to trick someone into doing something they didn’t want to, but rather a designer can guide them towards something they do want to accomplish.
Design is most successful when it allows an experience feel so frictionless the end user barely even notices it. One example where positive manipulation comes into play is TurboTax. Yes, I know this example is used quite a bit, but there’s a reason. TurboTax takes a task of consolidating what feels like never-ending amounts of paperwork that is very confusing to begin with and manipulates the information in a way where many people can actually digest it. TurboTax makes it easy to submit your taxes, but they also make it easy to know what to actually submit. Their approach gives me the confidence that I can do my own taxes, but also that I’m doing them correctly.
I wish all examples of manipulation in interaction design were as elegant as this one, but unfortunately there are people and companies out there that do manipulate data in a way to trick the user into doing something he or she did not want to do, such as incorporating a dark pattern. A dark pattern is an interaction model where the user is deliberately tricked into doing the opposite of what they actually want to do. One of the more malicious examples I can think of is phishing for private information, such as passwords. People will create an email or webpage which looks like a legitimate version of a service such as Facebook, Google, or a bank account in an attempt to trick the user into giving them their username and password. This manipulative action leads to private information being accessible. Here is an example of someone trying to get access to an individual’s amazon account:
Facebook uses a less malicious dark pattern when trying to persuade someone from deactivating his or her account. They utilize attachment anxiety, defined by Brian Cugelman, PhD, as the “uneasy feeling you experience when you’re feeling insecure about a relationship, and uncomfortable about a potential breakup.” When you proceed to deactivate your Facebook account the user is presented with five pictures of their friends with the claim that each one of them will miss you. Facebook has no idea that this is the case and probably simply uses an algorithm to surface people you’ve either recently interacted with or interact with the most.
They take it a bit further and give you a call-to-action (CTA) to message the individual and navigate away from deactivating your account. I’m assuming their hope is that you do so and forget you were deactivating in the first place getting sucked back in to the extremely addictive, and even compulsory, timeline.
I don’t think utilizing anxiety attachment to retain users is necessarily wrong, but the way Facebook utilized is unethical. Primarily by the claim they make of “Zoha will miss you.” The big problem I have with this example is the fact that Facebook is making an /*unsubstantiated claim*/ using someone else’s supposed opinion to manipulate users’ into staying on their platform. This isn’t based on facts but rather assumptions.
My partner deactivated his Facebook account about 4-5 years ago, but quickly realized the primary method of seeing updated pictures of his Godson, Colin, was in fact through Facebook. This led him to reactivating his account. If Facebook had changed the phrasing to something along the lines of, “you will no longer see pictures of Colin posted to Facebook,” I’d have much less of a problem with this tactic being used here. Primarily due to the fact they wouldn’t be making a claim that was unsubstantiated, especially in regards to an emotional relationship.
Dropbox uses the same type of strategy when a user tries to cancel his or her paid account, but doesn’t make any claims they can’t back up. Because of the way they approach their messaging and what they’re displaying I have much less of an issue with it.
Although, Dropbox still treats the primary CTAs in a way that your attention is drawn more towards their goals to keep you as a paid user as well as forces you to scroll through descriptions of the features and information which you’ll no longer have access to, which is definitely a fact. They show you the amount of online storage you’ll be losing. The descriptions include the number of backed up photos, and the collaborative files you’ll lose access to.
Their presentation still approaches the feeling of breaking up with a service, but they show you the exact features and benefits the user will no loner have if they continue down a path of cancelling their service. To make this particular example less manipulative I think Dropbox could make the bottom right cancel CTA a little more forward facing, but I understand that’s not in the best interest of their business goals. Does this mean that need to optimize this page for their business and not their user, no. I actually like the way that Dropbox reminds me of the features I would lose connection to, especially if I had forgotten about those collaborative folders, but I don’t like how the design of the CTAs draws my attention more towards their goals, rather than mine. Albeit, I’m hesitant to say this choice is malicious.
Designers have the power to influence and make these design decisions from a strategy standpoint (using anxiety association) to a micro-detail execution. I believe someone once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” As cliche as this quote may be it doesn’t take away from the truth to it. If designers are the people executing on decisions like this, even if directed from a superior, we have the responsibly to speak up and make ethical decisions on a day to day basis. That also doesn’t negate the fact that people who have less of a design role within their company are void of this responsibility. Any decision maker should be taking this into account and the implications of these decisions.
You don’t have to work at a non-profit with a mission to change the world to do good within the world of design. Mike Monteiro proposes and then answers the question, “Where can you do good work? The answer is so obvious as to be painful. Right where you stand. That’s where you do good work.” No matter the level of experience a designer holds within a company, nor the type of company a designer may be working for, a designer has the power and therefor responsibility to make ethical decisions every single day.
Jon Kolko made a statement in his article regarding manipulation which reads, “I fear there are practitioners who are competent or even extraordinary craftsman, yet have learned no real ethic, no guiding set of axioms in which to ground their work. I don’t mean that designers are lacking morals, or are even bad people. I mean that many practitioners seem to have no consistent set of values that they automatically fall to when doing their job.” This made me realize I haven’t defined explicitly my set of values on my day to day job. I like to think of myself as an ethical person, but without having concretely laying down where my ethics stand I don’t have a way to keep the decisions I made in check. Here’s what I came up with:
- Make decisions based on the best interest of the users.
- Avoid creating patterns or a system that will inherently afford unnecessary compulsory behavior.
- Never use a design that is intended to trick the user into something they don’t want to do.
These guiding principles do not limit my responsibility as a designer, and will no question mature over time, but the fact that they now explicitly exist makes me pay even closer attention to my design decisions than I did previously. Having power comes with the ability to affect change, and therefore is not limited to designers. I urge everyone to create their own personal set of principles to drive decisions because our decisions affect others whether we are aware of it or not.