UX - User experience or user exploitation?

User experience and design ethics

Jan 29, 2021 • • 🍿 2 min. read in design

I read this really interesting article this morning by Mark Hurst:

It's a timeline showing Mark's view of UX as it changes over time, but this paragraph sums it up well:

I was giving a talk on my book Customers Included to a large company in the travel industry.

The UX team, charged with managing the digital presence of this travel giant, pulled me aside afterward for a private Q&A. They were not satisfied with my talk: sure, they said, we can do the research, listen to customers, and make recommendations for improvement. But what if leadership not only ignores our recommendations but tells us to do something different?

I'll never forget one comment. "We're lying to our users," one anguished UX designer told me, explaining that leadership regularly ordered the UX team to create designs that were intentionally misleading. Apparently it helped boost profits.


It's very hard to disagree with a lot of this - companies that are trying to scale up are often looking to get as much money as possible for their shareholders.

These are what's known as deceptive patterns - tips and tricks that make users do things they wouldn't have necessarily done otherwise, through designing with confusion, obfuscation, or just plain psychological manipulation in mind.

Deceptive Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn't mean to, like buying or signing up for something.

This is especially prevalent in services that are dominant gatekeepers. If people aren't going to quickly leave for a competitor, then it's very tempting for companies to abuse their position, knowing full well people aren't going to leave in a hurry.

People are becoming more aware of such practices - look at the migration away from WhatsApp to more privacy-focused alternatives like Signal, so there is hope.

I for one don't think this is the fault of UX or UXers. Often designers work in places where these choices get foisted on them by management, despite best intentions and suggesting otherwise. I don't see this changing fast and I certainly wouldn't choose to go and work somewhere like Facebook for this very reason.

The people who take advantage of our animalistic brains for short-term financial gain, are the ones who will amass the wealth and power to keep doing so.
Charles Burdett

So what can we do as Designers?

When you are looking for your next role, think about how your next company treats users relative to doing things purely for shareholder value, and consider their general ethical principles. What is their business model?

Learn about these deceptive patterns, and cognitive biases, and try and think how what you design helps people, and speak out against bad practices when you can.

Even if you know about why these things work, it's almost impossible to not fall for them - such is human nature. It also can be a very grey area in the middle of good and bad.

Educate yourself about great deck of 52 cognitive biases. Stephanie Walter published this on her blog - well work learning about.

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