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The discussion started when a fellow UI designer said that she was proud of working "making people lives better" as opposed to our fellows at the advertising dept, all day long "cheating people" ;-)

We all know that advertising IS somehow evil, but are we UX people, without sin? Could UX be a tool for manipulating people?

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Hi, sorry about the "lost" emoticon. When I say evil I do it with a wink; I have good friends at that side of hell. I even hang out with social media people. Of course I agree with all of you on "well, just a bit. It is necessary and more than balanced by the good we do". I have to eat after all. Anyway, I think that we are not that far from having to make ourselves ethical questions in our work; my friends at social already do. I just wanted to introduce myself to everybody in this group with this (yeah, bizarre) question. Hi!, thanks everybody for your answers & links –  luna1999 Jul 20 '10 at 21:04
    
User Experience is not evil, it's even a superset of UI. Ah, but those guys at the advertising dept... they are the worst, always making me click buttons I didn't want to, cheating on me! –  Camilo Martin Dec 19 '11 at 8:18

11 Answers 11

up vote 19 down vote accepted

I think what you're asking about is Persuasion Design, which aims to influence the user's actions in a way that brings benefit primarily to the business, rather than the user.

I think if we're honest, a lot of us do this every day - making changes with the aim of increasing a conversion rate. Usually this is of most benefit to the business, but the user is hopefully still getting what they want - you've just made it a little easier for them to do so.

Ultimately, there's a line between what is acceptable and what is not:

  • Promoting a particular course of action by explaining the benefits and making it easy to follow, is perfectly acceptable
  • Manipulating a user to do something that is against their interests and serves only to maximise profit for the business, is not

I would hope that as user-centred designers we are empathic and altruistic enough to steer away from the latter, but of course it's often not us that has the final say…

I'm going to go with a modified version of Google's motto:

"Don't be evil. Or at least do as little evil as you can without getting fired."

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Pete beat me to it! This would have been my 2 cents worth also. Persuasion design can understandably stir up some passions amongst UX professionals who feel that there is a greying of boundaries about the intentions of UX. Human Factors international offer a course in it however ... humanfactors.com/training/PET.asp ... so can't be that evil! (I'm assuming your question was slightly tongue in cheek, anyway). This presentation stirred up exactly some of those negative reactions that I mentioned however: vimeo.com/6096980 –  Tom Jul 20 '10 at 10:38
    
Related article, nice read: robotregime.com/index.php/articles/view/influence –  TomvB May 4 '11 at 7:13
    
I think it comes down to whether you're trying to make things easier for the user, or trying to manipulate them into following your end goal, and to what degree are you manipulating them. –  Eric Aug 2 '13 at 12:34

What a bizarre question.

Of course UX semi-manipulates people. More along the lines of positive suggestion though.

We make things stand out and urge them towards a path and continually encourage them with highlighted items, etc. But it's not "enforced". There's no penalties except possibly getting a little lost or not finding what's needed.

Evil? No way. The purpose is to make a better experience for them. Maybe your definition of evil/sin is different from mine because I don't see marketers as evil either.

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+1 agree with your thoughts –  Jitendra Vyas Jul 20 '10 at 19:54
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I disagree - in my eyes, UX isn't per se "not evil", same with marketing. It's all about what you do with it, see also adrianh's casino example. When they're corporate employees, UXers (as everyone else) do their job which often is helping their company reach its business goals, and if those goals happen to be "make our product more enjoyable/easier to use", that's what they will do. However, if they tend to ignore the moral implications of their work and they're told to guide the user into a choice that primarily benefits the company (you could call that evil), they probably will do that too. –  Jan May 3 '11 at 15:04

If we focus 100% on the end-user, then no. But it's the real world, so at times I'm sure our talents are used for nefarious purposes such as "can we work on figuring out better click-through rates for this up-sell marketing message?"

And by that, I mean sometimes we're not 100% user centric. Sometimes we have to give a few of those percentages to the business-side.

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Absolutely. Even when I worked on control panels for multi-funtion printers, I would "manipulate" people by placing certain controls in an "Advanced" tab intended to discourage novices from messing things up.

And if you work in e-commerce at all, you create ways to "optimize" click-through and increase purchase decisions. If that's not part of your skills as a UX designer, you're a few tools short of a full set.

Also, for the record, I don't think there is anything unethical with using your "powers" to persuade people to do what's good for your company. It's not like advertisers (or UX designers for that matter) have some kind of mind control power. We can just do what will encourage or increase the possibility of successful transactions.

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If you have the choice between a mediocre user experience that better serves the company, or a better experience that more serves the user, are you saying it's OK to pick the former? –  Bryan Oakley Jul 20 '10 at 0:33
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No, good user experience always serves both your company's best interest and the user's best interest. –  Gary Jul 20 '10 at 4:57

Of course UX can be a tool for manipulating people. It's all about getting into people's heads, understanding what motivates them and observing how they respond. Its a pretty easy step from that to turn the experience back on your user for 'evil' means :)

One of the sites I work for, most people in their right minds wouldn't use. Except its a government site, and well, you kinda have to deal with this agency whether you like it or not.

A substantial part of the UX approach we take is getting citizens to do stuff they have no real interest in doing, and a lot of the experience (unfortunately) is derived from what's good for the agency.

Most of our design discussions don't focus around what would benefit the user per se, they usually start with a statement like "we need people to do [action]", then we design around that (and at least try and make [action] as good an experience as possible).

In an ideal world driven by pure UX, the government agency wouldn't exist, and I'd work for somebody else :)

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The UX toolset can be used to encourage certain behaviours. Good and bad.

Go walk round a casino. You'll see dozens of really neat UX techniques whose sole purpose is to get people to lose their money.

There was a really nice thread on Dark Patterns: dirty tricks designers use to make people do stuff that you might find an interesting read, along with http://usability4evil.wordpress.com/

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According to ISO, UX is 9241-210

a person's perceptions and responses that result from the use or anticipated use of a product, system or service

Wordnet's definition of evil is

  • S: (n) evil, immorality, wickedness, iniquity (morally objectionable behavior)
  • S: (n) evil (that which causes harm or destruction or misfortune) "the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones"- Shakespeare
  • S: (n) evil, evilness (the quality of being morally wrong in principle or practice) "attempts to explain the origin of evil in the world"

Based on those definitions, is UX evil? Is the design of a person's perceptions and responses evil? It depends on how it is done and what it is done for. We don't all design UX the same way and for the same reasons.

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UX is not evil. Like anything else it can be used for evil, but in itself is not inherently evil - merely the potential for evil. Think of it like black, white and grey hats in the 'hacker' world. Code itself isn't evil but it depends on the coder as to how they use the code...for good or bad.

UX has a tendency towards being inherently good if anything. Sure, there are commercial factors that influence UX, and can influence towards evil (e.g. auto opt-in marketing) but aren't explicitly evil.

To do truly evil things (as opposed to clueless) in this ultimately connected world (both in social and network terms) means a reduction in revenue and a brand perception hit. Look how Apple have u-turned over 'antennagate' - from the evil intial response of "you're holding it wrongly" to "we love our users - here have a free solution". You can be evil but you won't be evil or in business for very long with the entire world talking to each other.

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We used to call ourselves “usability engineers,” but now we call ourselves “user experience specialists.” The change represented a broadening of the field but also it also represented a decreased emphasis on maximizing objective human performance and an increased emphasis on maximizing subjective human satisfaction. That itself isn’t bad, but it pushed our field towards turf traditionally controlled by marketing and the ethical dangers that lurk there. Now we concern ourselves with persuasion and trust, rather than just satisfaction. We are using marketing terms like “branding” and “conversion rates,” words that endear us to the suits that write our checks, but do little if anything for users.

By creating experiences, we blur the boundaries of perception and reality. Is it more important to have the shortest task completion time, or make the users feel like they have the shortest task completion time? When you’re building experiences, the answer is no longer clear. In such a context, it can be easy to convince yourself that deceptive designs are in fact genuine. After all, by creating perceptions, you’re creating reality, so deception is logically impossible.

  • I’m not imposing an unnecessary re-learning or migration burden on my users. I’m making the web site feel fresh and new.

  • I’m not upselling a questionable offer. I’m informing the user of their options.

  • I’m not adding complicating features to a product. I’m improving pride in ownership.

  • I’m not mis-applying a trendy technology to generate word-of-mouth buzz. I’m making the product cool.

  • It’s not an unnecessary step in a wizard to appeal to product reviewers. I’m adding the experience of value.

  • I’m not trapping the user with sunk costs. I’m improving engagement.

  • I’m not violating best practices or usability standards for the sake of brand differentiation. I’m innovating.

  • I’m not posting friend counts to subliminally trick users into building huge social networks of strangers. I’m providing game-like fun and motivation.

  • Users are used to animated advertisements now. It’s no big deal.

  • Most users will benefit from opting-in, so it’s the default.

  • It’s not manipulation. It’s persuasion.

Those aboard the Clueless Train who assume that whatever is good for the users must be good for business seem to miss the fundamental conflict between consumer and business –that each wants to get the most from the other for the least cost. One proven method to making a butt-load of money is to screw your consumers just enough so they don’t notice, or at least don’t resent it too much. Sometimes usability is bad for business. Success as measured by market share doesn’t necessarily correlate with providing the best product to the consumer. If you’re clever enough, you can use the web to amplify deceitful sales practices. Has the web made politics more honest or has it fueled the absurd allegations each side makes against the other? Is Microsoft Windows the best user experience available? Is Facebook the best social app technically possible today?

It’s a complicated fix we’ve gotten ourselves into, and I’m not ready with a complete answer. However, one place to start is to ask yourself what your designs really do? Are you designing to sell or designing to use? Are you building for consumers or users? Are you creating an experience for the user or a brand for the company? Are you considering the total human experience or just the experience with the product or company?

Update: I've expanded this answer into a full article A Man of Wealth and Taste. My more complete answer is that we should design for real experiences, not artificial ones. We avoid evil if we design to fulfill existing user wants and needs, rather than creating new wants and needs, and if we design to actually fulfill those wants and needs, not merely appear to fulfill those wants and needs (even to the user).

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WOW some really deep thoughts - My view its a great job because its fun to do. Lets not dress it up to much. Half the comments on this site are about how to 'Persuade' clients to use UX! I am struck by the hidden irony. How come when we want to persuade its good, and when we are persuaded by advertising its bad!

Great thread title though got me thinking at least.

The art of advertising is to persuade people that they didn't realise they needed what ever it is you're selling.

Selling isn't about providing an information service, its about differentiation. Its about showing people the difference between owning and not owning or choosing one version over a competitor version.

If we feel guilty because we're using user experience as a differentiator then I am unclear as to the point of the profession.

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User experience is about the user having a good experience.

Naturally businesses want their users to have a good experience because it typically translates to gains in business.

If we are improving the users' experiencing, we are serving both the business well and the users well. How can that be evil?

The business' intentions are really what we are questioning here.

Our responsibility is in what businesses/causes we choose to work for.

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