Limiting Persuasive Design

At the start of Q2, we were introduced to a new curriculum. In this quarter, ac4d students would learn about ethics, and more specifically, understand how to create personal ethical frameworks that can guide us into our professional careers. With this mindset, I began to further explore my own value system. What motivates and drives me? Where do I draw the line when no one is watching? These questions followed me into our first set of readings.

The readings linked to our first assignment introduced the idea of dark patterns in design. Dark patterns are often subtle obscured nudges designed into a product to compel a user to take action in favor of the business they are interacting with – often at the cost of the user. While reading, I became intimately interested in exploring how persuasion is built into such a system.

As defined by the Interaction Design Foundation, persuasive design is an area of design practice that is based on psychological and social theories and focuses on influencing human behavior through a product’s or service’s characteristics.

In thinking about this definition, I realize we interact with these persuasive architectures in our physical world all the time.

We encounter them at grocery stores upon check out. The gum and candy at perfect eye-level for young children right before we complete shopping. The tabloids that we can toss onto the conveyor belt without a second thought. The persuasive architectures built into the grocery shopping experience are small nudges to add one more thing into our carts before we go.

 Are you sure you don’t want..?

This isn’t a far cry from what we interact with online. The targeted ads that follow us from site to site. The extra item that found its way into our cart right before we check out online. The notifications reminding us there are only a few tickets left.

As resources grow more sophisticated, designers are becoming more equipped to personalize user experience and embed persuasive elements in increasingly discreet ways. This is how dark patterns grow at scale.

We still see dark patterns in the physical world too.

When we walk into a casino, everything in this space tells us to stay and take a seat. Slot machines are especially successful in keeping us engaged for long periods of time. Designed with our psychologies in mind, slot machines compel us to play again and again and again. We were that close last time – just one more try… And the more we play, the more money the casino is prepared to make.

This is also true in the digital world. Take the infinite scroll. Joshua Porter mentions, “Scrolling is a continuation, clicking is a decision.” By taking away this decision from users, users become subconsciously engaged with a platform for longer durations of time. The potential for addiction grows with users’ desires to solve the uncertainty of the next post which is coupled with our inability to remove smartphones from the fabric of our lives. And with each continued scroll, the more ads we are fed and data captured.

As a budding designer set on building her ethical framework, I must inspect each behavior I design to change.

  • Is it a continued scroll on Instagram? Increased user engagement with Instagram? Am I persuading users to look at their phone more often?
  • Is it purchased candy at the grocery store? Am I persuading children to eat more candy?
  • Is it disposing of waste in recycling bins? Am I persuading people to limit their non-renewable waste?

I also question how much agency each system gives a user when making these behavioral decisions. To what degree can a user opt-in or out of each behavior change?

How much agency does a user have in adopting a behavior?

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What if the behavior in question is recycling? As a designer, can I reconcile with discreet persuasion to encourage users to separate their trash as an effort in conservation? What about to buy a product for the company I work for?

The identified behavior is important. It’s associate benefits and consequences matter.

So, who benefits and who suffers?

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How do I reconcile with the answers to these questions?

When thinking about my role as a designer, I remember a quote from Ian Leslie in our readings.

“No matter how useful the products, the system itself is tilted in favor of its designers.”

We have great responsibility when designing these systems. In learning about different ethical principles and framing it back to my values, I’ve begun to create a “gut check.” With these questions in mind, I can challenge whether I accept my part and power in promoting a behavior.

Screen Shot 2019-11-10 at 6.31.19 PMPlease continue to follow me as I develop my formal ethical framework over the course of this quarter.