Power & Manipulation: How to Wield Design Thinking

One thing has become abundantly clear in these first two sections: design is manipulative. The last theory post talked about how the intention of a design does not necessarily match to the outcome. Design is unique in how it subtly changes thought patterns and impacts culture and ideology to their base without an overt statement. When designers create without thinking about the long term ramifications, they set loose an unknowable force. Sometimes these forces create good outcomes, sometimes bad. Or sometimes they are both as in Mark Manson’s article where he tells us the internet was supposed to be this beautiful thing, and kind of still is, but it’s buried beneath garbage.

How then can a designer ensure their intention is realized? How can designers coerce the change they wish to cultivate? Design holds coercion as a main delivery mechanism to the consumers of the design. In the article “Manipulation” by Jon Kolko, he talks about how the power of design lies within the manipulative ability designers have. He also talks about the duty of the designer to design for good, but qualifies that it is not to simply want to do good. “I intended to do good, so of course it was good that I would do.” Followed by “It is not enough to intend to do good. …That intent must be qualified, and the qualification happens at a micro, detailed, tiny level of design specificity.” He expresses how a designer should wield their power, using it to respect the user and respect the design as an artifact capable of making waves beyond your imagination.

When we normally consider the idea of manipulation, it comes with a certain connotation of deceit, or use. Manipulation through design is not manipulation of it is manipulation for. This qualification is slight, but meaningful. Manipulation of is when you manipulate people for selfish intention. For instance, the article talking about democratization and design in the workplace by Pelle Ehn, highlights the way design is able to be used to manipulate people into feeling more powerful, while robbing them of the little power they held. Another example of this comes in Assai Lamzah’s article “Urban design and architecture in the service of colonialism in Morocco.” Assai explains how “the French colonial regime used space, urban design and architecture in Morocco as means of power and domination.” The French built new infrastructure around cities in Morocco keeping the nationals in the city center and halting the growth and proliferation of their culture, and instead forced the French culture, architecture and bureaucracy on the indigenous population. The Moroccans were fed the French ideology from the mouths of their community leaders. In using the Moroccan population to their advantage, Assai states “This policy of association was designed to prevent Moroccan resistance to colonial rule,” meaning essentially, by integrating into the culture instead of overpowering it—as they had tried and failed doing in Algeria—they were able to more effectively control the population.


Design here is not overt, it is an accepted practice used by government structures still today to control and cull their populations. The design of these systems are not regularly vetted or designed for their users. They are designed to empower those designing. More contemporary and applicable examples of this are viewed as “dark patterns.” This are used to manipulate people into clicking on the wrong action, or unintentionally opting in. A great example of this is Facebook’s farewell page. It not only is difficult to find the way to deactivate your page, but they use emotionally charged tactics to make a user question their decision. Telling a user their friends will miss them, or that they will be missing out on updates from their friends.

Using social anxiety and emotional pain to control your user base is becoming more and more commonplace. In Brian Cugelman’s article “How companies use social pain, to stop customers from leaving,” he talks about how companies are using attachment anxiety to wield power over their users. This is a designed mechanism. There was testing done, probably A/B testing, to see which option proved more effective. Facebook, from the earlier example, employs psychologists whose role remains a bit of a mystery, but it seems this is at least one tangible example of their impact to the site. Cugelman states “The brand’s not sorry to see you go, nor is the website, as these are non-human things. They don’t have feelings. However, there’s no shortage of research that shows that people still feel the effects of human-like interaction, even when expressed by technology.” So tech companies are obviously using dark patterns like this to manipulate users into feeling bad or anxious about leaving a site. According to Jon’s ethical argument, the designers creating these mechanisms either were not aware of their impact, or simply did not care and are moving towards the side of unethical treatment of other people.

A question that comes to mind here is: What is a designer to do when in a situation such as this? Pressure from all sides mounting for you to increase the amount of users saved by the landing page. Having psychologists tell you to play off of their emotions and cause discomfort. In this situation, saying no isn’t going to create a systemic change. It has to be adopted by all designers for a better experience across the board. This is a lofty call to action, and it seems almost counterintuitive to the wants of a business. It seems almost easier to capture users like this on their way out, then to captivate them continuously through good design and UX. What does this all amount to?

In her article “The World that UX is Helping Create,” Lis Hubert talks about her realization that UX is creating a negative impact on human end users. She presents a call to action in the form of a question; asking “ Do you, dear UXer, like the world that you are currently helping to create?” Following it with her final question: “Are you ready to accept responsibility for the way your designs change the world?” She qualifies all of this with guidelines for designers to follow when creating. Nicholas Carr compares the users Lis is describing as compulsive and addicted. The devices were designed to do everything, including snare us and enslave us to the interaction of the digital realm. He states part of the problem is the data analytics we have, and their focus. Companies want data helping them to sell more, not the information of what a user needs. User needs are often contrary to what many would consider things to move a business forward. Investing in infrastructure or redesigning pages to be less confusing and allow users to spend less time, not more, on their product.

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This is a screenshot showing what it’s like to try to leave Facebook. It’s confusing and they use family and friends to try to pull you back in.

But money rules the world, and companies like Google, according to Nicholas “[were not founded] with the intent of spreading social anxiety and then capitalizing on it through surveillance systems—but it is now sustained by design…Rewards now flow to the competitor that is best able to maximize consumer anxiety in a way that spurs more compulsive behavior…” Nicholas highlights here how designers are missing the mark in standing up for the user on the grand scale. Designers are exercising their power, either with or without the knowledge of the ramifications (which is not an excuse), to the detriment of the public. News organizations pop off articles about how millennial are the least socially secure generation, and it is not a wonder in a world where there is so much manipulation of the emotions and considerations of this group, that they would be so unsure of the world they live in.

Making sure the work created is not contributing to the problem of the masses, that it is not a dark design. Lis makes a great point, similar to Jon’s, about how designers must think beyond the standard area of effect of their work and look to see what waves their single drop could create. Designing for the details is what becomes important; not holding to the values of the company, but holding to the values of the user. How then do we do this?

According to Jon, to move from the trend of manipulation of to manipulation for, designers must begin taking the ethical questions of their projects to the forefront, and ensuring they adhere to a set of qualities defined by user research. In Mike Montiero’s piece “Ethics can’t be a side hustle” he brings into question of what good work is. His contention is a designer has a responsibility to ask the ethical questions like: Is this for the good of the user? Does this hurt or disenfranchise anyone? How will this effect the people who use it? His example of designers working on Uber’s Greyball program, a tool used to help avoid run-ins with the law for Uber drivers, shows how people can create something without worrying about the true result, thinking “I know better than them.”

This mentality has moved down a path of the reification of user populations instead of supporting them with design. Montiero does not simply blame designers, though. He calls out anyone who touched the product. He places blame on the lack of ethics of all involved parties for allowing something like Greyball to be implemented. It’s similar to the Facebook designers who created the exit pages. They knew how their designs effected users, they knew the intention was tainted with greed and impure motive, but they made it and implemented it anyway. Probably blaming a greater “they” in power pushing for the change, only making the problem bigger.

Behavioral change has so long been used for nefarious purposes in business, government, and other sectors, it is seemingly a hard tradition to break. These examples of manipulation of a group of people illustrate how not to wield the power of design; but what of the other side, manipulation for? Now manipulation for is a simpler way of saying using manipulation for the benefit of the user. For instance, making changes to grocery lists with healthier items, gradually pushing a user to adopt a healthier diet with little to no overt change in habit. Or manipulating people to spend less time on their phones, making websites smarter and simpler, easier to navigate with less clicks and more time spent elsewhere. Is it difficult to think of things that are meant to empower a user for everyday life because there aren’t many things made in that manner?

In Richard Anderson’s piece “Go ahead—ask people what they want” he makes a case for designers to listen to users, and to hear them. he states “…users actually do often know what they want and need, and when they don’t (completely) know, answers to such questions often contain important clues.” With near certainty, no one told the Facebook designers they wanted to feel bad when they were leaving, and no one told Apple to make something so addicting there is no separation from self and technology, but they created these things with an unexpected, and potentially catastrophic, consequences.

Design is powerful, and the potential for manipulation is great. Many people believe if design thinking were a more prevalent school of thought, these issues would be eradicated. All people in a business would understand the emotional impact of their products and become more conscious of the effect they are having on their user population. In David Dunne and Roger Martin’s article “Design Thinking and How It Will Change Management Education: An Interview and Discussion” they speak about the necessity for change in the MBA program from the ground up. Their claim is MBA graduates should be learning about design thinking and empathizing their their users instead of being the numbers guys looking to crush constraints and opposition. A main point of their article is that the “analytical, quantitative, number crunching, deductive-inductive, self-oriented” typical MBA grad would be “weeded out in the application process” of this new program. This is based off of the idea that MBA would no longer be focused on business in so far as numbers and profits go, but instead on designing their business to serve customers the best.

From this conversation of the manipulative powers of design, and the ability to manipulate in a bad way unintentionally or without thought, what then happens when people utilizing design thinking choose to explicitly manipulate their users or customers? Things like the Facebook account delete screens, or other emotionally punitive options similar to this. These things are very superficial at this point, they are simple modules expected to elicit a visceral but general emotional response. If they were designed with the specificity afforded to design thinkers to be manipulative of someone, how would this be beneficial.

There are a lot of necessities for Dunne and Martin’s world to become true, so if a slow incremental integration is what happens, then do we not give the traditional MBA, someone who is part of the problem in enforcing dark patterns, enforcing number goals, and enforcing strict needs for profit margins, does this not give them more power to further exploit the user? Instead of having a designer as a mediator, the MBA would have the power, and arguably due to their logical and profit-forward views of the world, the motivation to wield design as a tool for their purpose?

The answer to this question will only be answered once the first wave of designer-businessman hybrids come out. Criticism of this is obvious, that design thinking, at it’s core, takes the user into consideration and holds their need above the other pieces. This is true, it is a current definition, but as with all things, it can be tainted and turned against it’s original purpose. Hopefully a strong ethic will emerge and push the design thinkers of the world to act with ethics in mind, but from our history, it seems ethics can be in short supply.


All of these examples show how design is used as a tool of manipulation of people for a selfish purpose. Design should not be used in this manner. It should be used to empower and support, not to isolate and instill anxious compulsions. The power of design should be wielded benevolently and carefully. In Jon’s words, comparing each decision to a set of values, and taking responsibility for what we create. Keep the principles of your users in your mind and ensure you fulfill them. In this way, manipulation for becomes the guiding hand of a mentor, forming your experience to foster talent and drive away insecurity and anxiety. No agenda beyond making the experience better.


My final question will be left for you to answer, because I do not have the answer. There are arguments made very persuasively for design thinking to permeate every aspect of the world, but should design thinking be applied to everything, given the opportunity for corruption and manipulation inherent in it’s power?