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I have had this at the back of my mind for sometime and I believe UX is the proper place to post this though I may not phrase the question right so please chime in if you have suggestions!

There are many examples showing that corporations in general believe that the road to profitability and longevity comes from delivering products that don't just perform well but show that they have put in the extra effort to make it better for the consumer. A couple examples: when my electric toothbrush is running low on power, it blinks for several uses before it runs out, giving ample notice to recharge it; when I leave my headlights on and open the door, the car reminds me to turn them off.

The glaring counter-example to this in the US is liquid laundry detergent. The instructions typically say to fill the cap to line 1 for a medium load. Simple in principle but in practice line 1 is usually difficult to find and the casual user (i.e. all of us) is misled to believe the obvious demarcation is synonymous with "line 1" when it is well above the usually subtly marked "line 1". The user (needlessly) consumes more product; the manufacturer (purposefully) makes more profit. The blogger NCN describes it well in Beware Of The Laundry Detergent Cap, complete with a photograph of a typical misleading laundry cap.

What brought this to a tipping point for me is one manufacturer carrying this nefarious arrangement to an absurd height--still indicating "line 1" as the necessary amount but not even bothering to include line 1 on the cap! Perhaps this was just an oversight in manufacturing. Sure.

In any case, my intent here is not to rant but to wonder if a misleading business practice like this is really a good business practice, counter to my (anecdotal) claim that I began with in the first paragraph?

2012.07.31 Update

Just thought of an equivalent example for software: deceptive download pages. I am sure you have seen them. You search for a product and go to its presumptive download page. The real link to download is usually there but overshadowed by a link to something else, usually tied to an advertisement. The real link is typically much smaller and often "below the fold" (i.e. you have to scroll to see it). Bill Pytlovany (of WinPatrol fame) points out that these show up even on highly reputable sites like CNet--see the screenshots in Dangerous Downloads on Legitimate Websites & Search Engines)

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These are called "Dark Patterns" I can probably answer but busy right now –  Ben Brocka Jul 30 '12 at 20:28
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The Dark Pattern Returns is a rumored reboot of Mad Men by Christopher Nolan –  DA01 Jul 31 '12 at 1:53
    
Instructions ? - What are those ? :-) –  PhillipW Jul 31 '12 at 12:12
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I would imagine that deceptive download pages aren't designed that way - most of the time they are the result of advertisers positioning their ads in those display spaces (with free reign about what graphics they use), along with poor vigilance on the part of whoever is maintaining the site. –  dhmholley Jul 31 '12 at 15:35

2 Answers 2

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Similar to Dark Patterns in interface design. The laundry cap is a good example. I'm sure they could make a smaller cap, one which is the adequate size for a normal load, instead of providing an overly large cap which will cause over-consumption. The game of packaging is a tricky one, often designed to benefit the manufacturer. It's not overly ethical, but I think it's widely accepted. Manufacturers will play dumb until someone calls them on it.

I seem to remember a mini-scandal with batteries that had a 'test strip' down the side. Many users were replacing batteries unnecessarily because of the coloring of the test strip. What was wrong with using the battery until it wouldn't power something any more?

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Giving you the nod because I enjoyed your rhetorical closing question! –  Michael Sorens Aug 3 '12 at 2:58

As a usability consultant, our job is to provide the optimum usability for the consumer, not the maximum profits for our employer.

If your job description directly includes the long-term profitability of your company, then you have to balance all sorts of issues, and these "Dark Patterns" may be acceptable for reasons that are "above our pay grade".

However, if I were asked to provide the design for the detergent cap, it would be the correct size and the optimum markings for a consumer to maximize their clothing cleanliness with a minimum of cost.

Professionally, I would be tempted to refuse to work on a Dark Pattern. But a lot of these cases fall into the category of "all our competitors do it, and if we don't, our company will go out of business".

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Nice thought. I wasn't too popular with it amongst UX designers of a big company though. Sometimes software (or product) is not made for the user, it's made for the management in order to satisfy career criterias, and keeping the high-paying jobs of mediocre engineers in these economically challenging times... :( (note, I didn't join and resigned instead) –  Aadaam Jul 30 '12 at 23:16
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This is going to be an unpopular opinion, but I have to say it. As a user experience design expert, your job is only to design the user experience (for good or evil). If you're a consultant, your job is actually not to advocate for the user, it's to understand and meet the needs of the client - a subtle distinction, since often the user's needs and the client's needs are aligned. Moral stands are nice in theory but you're restricting yourself as a designer if you can't consider grey-hat or black-hat applications of your skills. –  dhmholley Jul 31 '12 at 7:50
    
@dhmholley -- please don't advocate money > ethics. Your job isn't to do anything "for good or evil" unless you choose to do your job for evil. You always have a choice. –  ashgromnies Jul 31 '12 at 14:00
    
I'm not advocating anything over anything (other than maybe doing a good job over a poor one). "For good or evil" is a reference to the amorality of the work, not that you have to use skills for either or both. My point is that putting a moral code above doing a good job is restrictive and potentially contradictory to your function as a designer. –  dhmholley Jul 31 '12 at 14:03
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A possible way for the particular example to be profitable and not use the oversized laundry detergent cap thing: Make it totally obvious that your product is different because your cap has a clear window on the side with obvious markings, put an arrow on the side of the jug pointing to it, with big words about being more eco-friendly by using less plastic, more big words about easy-to-use etc, our users use x% less detergent blah blah blah... I'm not a professional in that field, that's just what I've seen some companies do, and it appears to work fine for them. –  AJMansfield Apr 19 '13 at 1:05

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