man with hat

Black Hat Storytelling

My Take

I came across this design case by Edward Wilson from Aymmetrica Labs and it got me thinking. He makes a convincing pitch about how to craft an engaging and convincing narrative around a product design. But the description is clearly of a deceptive approach, what seems to me like an example of black hat design.

In the past I spent far too long trying to sell people on excellent, but complicated, unintuitive, unfamiliar narratives. I competed with others who offered the same stuff I did but they dumbed it down, they made it less effective, but they made it easier to understand. The other guys always won. It took a while (15 years) but now I get it. My job is to take the excellent content I am working with and try to make it intuitive, obvious, and familiar. If I don’t make it intuitive, obvious, and familiar, I won’t have an audience.

Here are the basic steps.

  • Connect the main value of the product with a strong sensory signal. Bleach smells like it disinfects, whether it does or not. Luckily, it really does. But what about the odorant they add to gas so that you can tell if it is leaking? We have learned that connection well enough now to associate the smell with the function. His example is even worse. The smell of ozone that comes out of an air purifier is an irritant, which is counterproductive to its effectiveness as a purifier. But because we associate it with purifying, the narrative works. It seems to me that if a designer intentionally adds a misleading sensory signal to an interface knowing that it will mislead the user – that is black hat design.
  • Use multiple sensory signals redundantly to strengthen the connection (instead of making a single sensory signal stronger). His example is the UV light on his air purifier. Even though the UV is not any stronger than what emanates from an old TV, we associate it with purification. So the narrative gets stronger. And again, if the designer is being intentionally deceptive, this is black hat design.
  • Use language that is scientific, complicated or expensive. Users falsely conflate higher prices, more science, and more complexity with greater quality and effectiveness in the product. It is the same reason that in blind taste tests we think two wines are equally tasty but when we see the prices the perceived taste somehow becomes correlated with that price. Similar results have been found with foods that have scientific nutritional justifications or technology that looks complex. Sometimes, these correlations are legit, in which case I have no complaints. But when it is intentionally deceptive . . . .black hat.
  • Add social proof to the narrative. Use language such as “best seller” or even better “50 of your friends have bought this model.” It is easy to come up with ambiguous versions of social proof that are impossible to verify (e.g. “top choice” based on what?). Legitimate data – white hat. Intentionally deceptive – black hat.

Edward ends with an example of a homemade air purifier he found online. It had a picture of a filter that was solid black due to buildup of filtered gunk (strong sensory signal). It had an engaging narrative about how she could finally live with her cats even with her cat allergy. It had some scientific sounding content – a Lasko fan, HEPA filter, and so on. How many users really know what these do? But they work.

Edward rationalizes the approach by stipulating that he would only use this if he believes in the product or service and simply needs a more effective way to convince the prospect. If the real story is not engaging, that doesn’t mean the product is not good, it just means you need to have a different way to sell it.

The Guardian adds some additional advice to the list. For example, if your business model is to be the least expensive, you want to counter the instinct to associate the low cost with poor quality. So use misdirection. Give them a different attribute to associate with the low cost, one that they don’t care much about. The example they use is for a low cost airline to admit that it has poor customer service so that the prospect doesn’t think they skimp on safety. Plus, the admission comes across as authentic and honest.

Your Turn

Is this approach ethical if you believe in the product despite the deceptive narrative? Isn’t there a risk that you are rationalizing your way to that conclusion as well? What about if you work in marketing and you don’t have an independent opinion of the product but it is your job to compose a compelling narrative?

Update – After speaking with Edward, it seems that this article could be misconstrued. My intention was to criticize the same thing that Edward criticized – the use of perceived value instead of actual value. I did not intend to criticize Edward’s views on the topic.

Image Credit: The Art of Caricaturing by Mitchell Smith

6 thoughts on “Black Hat Storytelling”

  1. As the author of the post you referred to, I’m surprised you extracted what you did from the post – it almost appears deceptively misleading.
    I do appreciate you included a link, perhaps people can come to their own conclusions about the perspective I have about being misleading. I certainly wrote it out of frustration, which I think comes across in my post. You have put it in a very different light here. Seems strange.

  2. If I incorrectly described Edward’s original intent, I want to wholeheartedly apologize. What I intended to say was simply:
    1. The techniques are psychologically effective, whether they convey accurate attributes about the design or mislead users.
    2. Designers should use them to convey accurate information but not to be misleading.
    3. The gray area I asked about was if the designer truly believes in the product but finds it hard to communicate the real reasons. Can he/she use these techniques in a way that is locally misleading, but globally accurate (conveys misleading information about an individual attribute but an overall opinion that matches the overall value of the design)?

    I didn’t mean to imply that Edward uses them for nefarious purposes. He adds a lot of value to the discussion by bringing them to our attention.

  3. The post I wrote is actually about whether perceived value is actual value – which I feel is worth discussion and attention. That’s why the first heading is “Is perceived value actual value?”. I’m very uncomfortable with me and the company I work for being used under the title of misleading black hat approaches to design. Especially the name of my company, they developed a product to that helps low literate people, and they are trying to find a way to monetize one aspect so the browser extension that helps low literate can be free. The founder is personally invested in helping low literate individuals.
    I’m not about black hat anything, my company isn’t, and that isn’t what the article is about. I would say please read the article and my linkedIn profile before associating me and the name of my company with black hat, but its too late. You’ve got the title of your post then under that my name and the name of the company I work for. Few people who have already read the article will take the time to check.
    Not sure why this was necessary, nor why it was deserved. All I can say is please read the article this post claims is black hat, and come to your own conclusions. Which probably 3 percent of the audience actually will.

  4. Edward: Thanks for these clarifications. I am not sure I disagreed with any of that in the original article. You are warning us of the trend towards using perceived value as a replacement for real value because it is easier to pitch potential customers through perceived value. I thought I was agreeing with you. When I say “His example is even worse” for example, I am stating that the design you are criticizing, I am criticizing too.

    I agree with you 100%. Relying on perceived value instead of actual value is not a good trend, despite the fact that it works. I am not saying that anything you do or say is black hat. I am agreeing with you that the perceived value trend that you are criticizing is black hat.

  5. One of Martin Luther King’s strengths was his ability to communicate complicated social issues with ease and inspiration. However, simplicity is only part of it. Today’s political messaging has become over-simplified, incorporated, and thus, meaningless. Sure, maybe this simple corporate message wins. But where does that leave humanity?

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