We are getting better and better at persuasive design. For the uninitiated, persuasive design is the practice of specifically crafting designs calculated to induce the user to engage in a specific behavior. On the surface, that seems pretty harmless. It may even sound like what all user interface design is intended to accomplish. But there is a difference that makes all the difference.
The idea that computers, mobile phones, websites, and other technologies could be designed to influence people’s behavior and even attitudes dates back to the early 1990s, when Stanford researcher B. J. Fogg coined the term “persuasive computing” (later broadened to “persuasive technology”). But today many companies have taken that one step further: using technologies that measure customer behavior to design products that are not just persuasive but specifically aimed at forging new habits.
Traditional user interface design is constructed to show users all of their options in the way that transparently allows them to effectively achieve the goals they bring to the system. Persuasive design has the end result in mind and manipulates how options are presented to nudge users in that direction. Persuasive designs leverage some powerful tools of decision architecture that can operate beneath the awareness of the user.
There are two key points that I want to highlight here that determine whether this is acceptable or not. The first is the difference between what my group calls Black Hat and White Hat objectives. In White Hat design, the needs and best interests of the user are prioritized and business objectives are worked into transactions only when they are aligned with the user’s best interest. With careful strategic design, this approach can achieve a sufficient profit to keep shareholders extremely satisfied. In Black Hat design, the business objectives are prioritized and the user’s interests are only considered when they are aligned with the business objectives. There are still many new benefits offered to users, but not quite as seamlessly as in scenario one. And in Black Hat design, the user is forced to make more tradeoffs often without even knowing it.
Which brings up the second point, transparency. One of the main reasons persuasive design works is that it is invisible to the user. So transparency is only supported if it is done up front. The objectives of the system and the tradeoffs that users are required to make must be explained up front. Then if they agree, the persuasion can ensue.
So I am not against persuasive design. In fact, I use it in my own design process. I leverage choice architectures and environmental design to nudge users towards one choice or another. But always with a White Hat strategy. In my courses, I make my students promise up front only to use the techniques I will be teaching them for White Hat design.
The problem is that the current design space is the Wild Wild West. There are not even any ethical guidelines let alone regulations about opting in or transparency (the HFES Code of Ethics can be found here). The MIT Technology Review article that I linked to at the start of this article describes both White Hat and Black Hat examples. It ends with a call for a basic set of principles that all persuasive designers should agree to: transparent opt-in being the primary ones. Regulations often get caught up in too much politics and then get watered down through lobbying to do much good. Of course, voluntary principles are just that. Because persuasive design is invisible to the user, designers who ignore these practices are only at risk if they are called out in the media. With social media being what it is these days, that could be enough. But I am not quite sure. What do you think?
Image Credit: The Art of Caricaturing by Mitchell Smith