Recently I was at a UX conference in Seattle and one of the speakers related a story that got my blood boiling.
This particular consulting designer told the story of being hired to design the first in-flight WiFi service portal for a major airline. The airline makes money when people pay for WiFi, but they lose money when people actually use it – because bandwidth at 30,000 ft is apparently pretty pricey. So this designer, fully conscious that this job “sounds kinda bad” went ahead and purposefully designed an experience that was super easy and polished when it came to taking your money, but crude and difficult to use once you tried to access the service you just paid for.
This is not OK.
As UX designers we have power. We understand little tricks that can manipulate people to exhibit behaviors that our clients and companies deem beneficial. These powers come with responsibility. It is up to each designer to set their own threshold for what is and what isn’t acceptable but I would encourage each of you to listen to your own conscience and if you feel compelled to tell a group of your peers that a job “sounds kinda bad” then deep down you get that it actually is bad.
I understand this because I have been there. I have worked at small agencies where the money was needed. Any client that walked through that door was welcome no matter if they sold used cars, beauty services or payday loans. Sometimes it’s about survival, but you still have to look yourself in the mirror every morning. As soon as I was able, my goal was to work for a company that provided a service that I felt was beneficial to us as a society. I feel like I have been able to achieve that goal working at Zillow.
Ethics are important because things are only going to get worse. The techniques we use to manipulate people are only going to get more and more refined as time goes on. The behavioral science of UX is still in it’s infancy. I look at where the industrial food sciences have gone and it’s a sad, sickening thing they have created. The web was born out of a spirit of freedom and democracy and I would encourage each and every designer to reflect on that when they go to their jobs each morning.
Choose to fight the good fight. Let’s build things that are good for our peers and our planet. Dieter Rams introduced the principle of environmentally friendly design in the 1970’s. Maybe it’s time we started thinking about ethically friendly design.
Those who make things have a great power. Let’s use that power for good with the end goal of making our world a better place. Our bits and pixels may not end up in a landfill someday themselves but they can encourage behaviors that are worse for our environment and our fellow citizens.
I believe we’re better than that.
As UX designers we have many tools at our disposal. Many of them are considered best practices and there is no controversy regarding their use. Other tools may be acceptable in some circumstances but not in others. Some cross the line and should be considered Black Hat.
What is Black Hat UX?
The term Black Hat is usually associated with security or SEO but it does apply equally well to the UX industry. Black Hat UX is anything that subtly and subversively sets out to influence the user to do something they really don’t want to do. Classic examples include email lists that are easy to sign-up for but hard to unsubscribe from. As UX Designers we are called to be the protector of the end user and when we choose Black Hat techniques we are letting them (and ourselves) down.
Many companies practice Black Hat techniques but I would like to call out Amazon.com, one of my hometown companies, for a recent example (they can take it).
Until today when making an MP3 purchase on Amazon.com users were given the option of downloading the files directly or storing them on the Amazon Cloud Player for later playback. Over several months I have watched as the link to download directly was made smaller while the banners promoting the Cloud Player grew larger and larger. Each time I was able to ignore the Cloud Player option because it was not what I was interested in as my music is handled by the Apple iCloud solution. But this morning when I went to download a new album the option to download directly to my computer was gone. My only option was to save the purchase to the Amazon Cloud Player and then use that to download the files to my machines.
I can almost hear the meetings that these designers must have gone through:
Manager: “We need to get our Cloud Player numbers up!”
Designer: “We’ve tried to entice the users more and more for weeks and many of them just don’t want it”
Manager: “Our team is responsible for driving these sign-ups and if we do not there will be serious consequences.”
Designer: “But some of our users simply DO NOT want to use this service. Should we force them to do something they really don’t want?”
Manager: “We need to get those numbers up and as the UX designer on this team it is your responsibility”
It’s hard to blame the designer who just wants to succeed and do well in their job. I’ve been in situations like this myself and the reality is sometimes short of quitting your job there is no way out. That’s unfortunate.
It’s all about the User
What if instead of removing a previously available option the Cloud Player was promoted with a free music offer? If the Cloud Player solution truly is best for the user as Amazon likely believes it should win out in the marketplace on it’s own but there is nothing wrong with positively encouraging that behavior to help it off the ground.
As an industry we would do well to realize we have a lot of power over how customers interact with our companies goods and services. Many of these powers are positive but many can be abused for goals that do not serve our users.
When short term business needs overshadow a quality UX design the irony is the business is the one that ultimately suffers. The user can walk away and find what they need from other providers. The business then must acquire new customers which is much more expensive than keeping (and pleasing) the ones who already know about and use your services.
The bottom line is that there are no shortcuts that won’t come back to bite you in the end. Quality UX is the only goal worth pursuing that will fulfill business and user needs long term. As the designers of these interactions it is up to us to fight these battles. Let’s encourage one another to stay accountable and say no when it is appropriate. Our companies depend on it.