User Experience’s Dark Side Raises Ethical Stakes

“If you choose the quick and easy path, as Vader did, you will become an agent of evil.” — Master Yoda

Darth Vader's Mask

Darth Vader’s Mask from the inside. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

In George Lucas’ epic screen saga, Star Wars, those with special talent and discipline can leverage The Force, the metaphysical power that binds the universe together – for good or for evil. The Force did not choose sides. It simply existed.

During the heady early days of user experience, many of us who leapt into the field felt much like the Jedi, the famed knights of Star Wars who used the Force to protect peace and justice. We were committed to bringing forth the principles and best practices of user experience that created intuitive interfaces. We strove to make the users’ experiences better, clearer, even to the point of being ‘seamless’ – the ultimate expression of an interface that not only gives the users what they want, but gives them what they need without them ever seeing how it happens.

It was only a question of time before the dark side of user experience would emerge. Now it has, as evidenced by the website called Dark Patterns. Curated by Harry Brignull, a user experience designer & consultant in Brighton and London, UK, Dark Patterns (darkpatterns.org) constitutes a library of interface design patterns used in websites and web-based applications to deceive users into actions that are generally not in their interest but are in the interest of the company. They are, in essence, examples of the dark side of user experience.

Yoda’s warning alerts us to the ubiquitous danger we face when we draw on the power of cognitive science that underlies our discipline. As interaction designers, we use that power with the best of intentions. In the Star Wars saga, Yoda warns Luke, an apprentice Jedi, as he heads into the most dangerous passage of his training, when the dark side of the Force will tempt him. Yoda cautions him that despite his best intentions to save his friends, he can still succumb to the road to Hell.

In the world of design, the temptations of the dark side are nothing new. In 1964, Ken Garland, a British designer, published the First Things First Manifesto, a clarion call for designers to resist the use of their talents to promote products of little social value. Four hundred graphic designers and artists endorsed his manifesto. When an updated version of the manifesto was published as First Things First 2000 in Adbusters, 33 internationally recognized graphic design professionals endorsed it, including Milton Glaser, the famous creator of the “I Love New York” logo. Glaser went on to publish The Road to Hell in a special edition of AIGA’s membership publication dedicated to “truth.” In this seminal piece, Glaser presented 12 scenarios that challenged designers to confront how far they would go with whether or not they would use their talents to help companies design deceptive advertising. Each scenario represented a progressively more challenging compromise to personal ethics, from the most innocuous implied meaning to out-and-out deception to sell a product known to cause death. Framed in this manner, Glaser forced the graphic design community to think about when ethics demanded turning down work. But in this context, he raised awareness of how ethics was a question of “where you draw the line,” a far cry from the common perception of telling the truth as being absolute.

UX designers today face the same challenge, only now the ethical stakes are higher. The forces that UX leverages are grounded in cognitive science that has advanced rapidly in recent decades. How humans interact with an application interface is a subtle psychological dance from system display to human perception to human action to system feedback and back again. Affordances in the interface, that ever-present subconscious communicator, drive people to think and then act without realizing it. The “force” of interaction design is powerful indeed, on an order of magnitude beyond the power of print creations that raised the clarion call from graphic designers of the last century.

Perhaps the time has come for a user experience ‘First Things First Manifesto’ to challenge the ethics of dark patterns.  Such a manifesto would need thought leaders in the UX community to step up to the plate to endorse it. Until that happens, it is up to every interaction designer in user experience to be aware of the signposts along the road to Hell.

Look at darkpatterns.org and learn how to recognize deception when it shows up in business requirements. Call it out and push back when you can. Learn how to communicate with product managers and business stakeholders about the larger issues to consider. Any business model that requires the use of deception to perpetuate its existence is not a sound business model. Reliance on dark patterns leads the business into escalating cycles of deceptive interaction design practices that, over time, can destroy the users’ trust in the application, and ultimately, the company.

This article was originally published in Interactive Media at http://interactivemedia.org/the-dark-side-of-user-experience/ and is republished here with their permission.
Print Friendly
This entry was posted in Deception by Design, Deceptive Practices, Leveraging Cognitive Psychology. Bookmark the permalink.