Content Designed to Manipulate Users

Back in 2004 Adam Greenfield wrote down some ethical guidelines for user experience in ubiquitous-computing settings. He starts off as follows:

Principle 1: Default to harmlessness. Ubiquitous systems must default to a mode that ensures their users’ physical, psychic and financial safety.

That might sound a little overly dramatic, but as we’ll soon see, it’s a very important principle for a designer to keep top-of-mind. Adam goes on to say this:

Principle 5. Be deniable. Ubiquitous systems must offer users the ability to opt out, always and at any point. As an absolute ethical imperative, users must be afforded the ability to make their own meaningful decisions regarding their exposure to ubiquitous perception, the types and channels of information such exposure will necessary convey, and the agencies receiving and capable of acting on such conveyance. Critical to this is the ability to simply say “no,” with no penalty other than the inability to make use of whatever benefits the ubiquitous system offers its users.

Now. Think about those principles, and then have a look at the newsletter preferences page for eBucks:

eBucks Newsletter Preferences

The text in the opt-out line reads:

I’m not concerned with my eBucks balance and I don’t think I should be the first to know about all the latest news.

It’s an interesting content approach taken by eBucks, and one I would argue violates both principles I quote above. They are basically making you feel out of touch (“be deniable”) and a little bit stupid (“default to harmlessness”) if you don’t subscribe to their newsletter. Are they also implying that you won’t be able to view your balance if you don’t subscribe? Probably not, but it can be interpreted that way.

Fast forward a few years after Adam’s article, and we now even have a name for this type of tactic. It’s a classic example of persuasion design:

Persuasion design doesn’t share User-Centered Design’s ethical neutrality. Instead, it makes an implicit but undeniable judgment that certain behaviours are preferable to others.

Persuasion design prioritises business goals above those of the user, and its values are irreconcilable with empathy, the central value of User Experience.

This is just one example, but you can see it everywhere. It might seem innocent at first, but it’s such a slippery slope to the evil of dark patterns. We need to consider the implications very carefully before we employ such techniques.