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.

Speaking the web’s language

Frank Chimero on why designers should learn to code:

Design decisions are not only affected by the characteristics of the content being designed, but also the qualities of the format. The best way to understand the characteristics of the web is to speak its language.

Good design and good markup provide structure to content. Good markup is a fundamental part of good design: beautiful on the inside, beautiful on the outside. HTML and CSS give another venue to provide structure to content in the native language of the web, and learning these guides decisions by surfacing the affordances of the medium. Design decisions are affected by both the content and the format, like how a sculptor would make different decisions if she were working with clay rather than marble.

Spot on. The whole post is worth a read, and Frank gives some good suggestions for resources to help designers get started on coding.

New Rules for Effective Customer Service

A couple of weeks ago our 2-year old daughter threw my wife’s phone in the swimming pool. The resulting journey through the Vodacom customer service labyrinth to replace the phone was frustrating, but it also gave me a new level of understanding and empathy for the immense challenges of providing customer service to hundreds of thousands of people.

This is an article about social media, customer support channels, and the principles every company should establish in their culture to serve their customers better. And (spoiler alert!) I do manage to get a new phone for my wife.

“Umm, So, Our Daughter Threw My Phone In The Pool”

What’s most surprising about getting a call about my wife’s phone suddenly finding itself at the bottom of our pool is how completely nonplussed I was about the whole thing. When you become a parent the kinds of things that upset you change significantly. I think I’ve discovered a pattern: if there is no blood involved, there’s really no reason to get upset. So after establishing that there was no blood involved, I proceeded to the next step – trying to replace the phone.


Files Aren’t Dead, They Just Need to Become Invisible

In There Will Be No Files In The Cloud Fred Wilson argues that file-based cloud computing will become a thing of the past:

This is why I love Google Docs so much. I just create a document and email a link. Nobody downloads anything. There are no attachments in the email. Just a link. Just like the web, following links, getting [stuff] done. I love it.

That’s the future. I’m pretty sure of it.

He has a point, but I think it’s important to clarify what he means by “file”. Sorry to go all Wikipedia on you, but I promise ther’s a point on the other side. Wikipedia defines a computer file as follows:

A computer file is a block of arbitrary information, or resource for storing information, which is available to a computer program and is usually based on some kind of durable storage. A file is durable in the sense that it remains available for programs to use after the current program has finished.

The point being that a file is a block of data that is accessible to the programs that need it. Based on that definition files are certainly not going away, because software will always need access to the data that makes it more than a pretty shell.


Work hard; be good to your mother

When I lived in Australia there was an ad for Pizza Hut that ran about 5 times a day for over a month. It featured Dougie the delivery guy — always on time, always courteous, always immaculately dressed. As he hands over the pizza and gets his money, he asks, “So… how’s about a tip?”

The customer thinks for a bit, starts closing the door, and then says: “Work hard; be good to your mother.”

No, you’re right, it’s not a very funny ad. Nevertheless the words have stuck in my head for over a decade now. Because I realise that in life, as in business, these might be the only two non-negotiable rules we all need to adhere to in order to be successful at what we do. Work hard. Be good to your mother.


UI Conventions and Inverted Scrolling in Mac OS X Lion

My favorite sentence from John Siracusa’s epic review of Mac OS X Lion is this one:

Apple appears tired of dragging people kicking and screaming into the future; with Lion, it has simply decided to leave without us.

And nowhere in Lion is this more apparent than what appears to be everyone’s least favorite feature: inverted scrolling on the trackpad. As I’m sure you know, what this means is that scrolling now mirrors how it works on iOS devices: you essentially drag the content up and down the screen, as opposed to moving the viewport of the application like we’re used to.

Natural scrolling in Mac OS X Lion

I love this change – it took me about 5 minutes to get used to it. But I appear to be in the minority with this opinion. It sounds like the first thing most people do once Lion is installed is head over to Settings and change it back to the old way of scrolling. So I’d like to step back a little and use this change to talk about UI conventions and when it’s ok to change them. To do that, let’s first look at what we know about Apple’s direction for their operation systems.

No More Banner Ads: Alternatives to Ad-Supported Media Sites

This morning I read an article about something that’s been on my mind for a while: Banner ads on media sites/blogs. In The Truth About Display Advertising, Mitch Joel writes:

Go to the website for your local newspaper. How many display ads, banners, buttons, text links, etc… do you see that are ads? Mine has over 15. That’s not in consecutive order… that’s all at once. It’s hard enough to get consumers to sit through four TV ads in a row, so what did you expect to have happen when you blast them with 15 ads on one page, all at once? Foregoing the aesthetics and the basic Marketing lesson that an ad will experience diminishing returns based on how cluttered the environment that it’s placed in is, does anyone really believe that this is the best way to advertise to consumers in the digital spaces?

No. I don’t think this is the best way to advertise to consumers. In fact, I don’t even think advertising is the best way to monetize media sites either. But are there viable alternatives? I think there are at least two business models that could work.


Google+ is going to be huge! No, it’s not!

I like Google+. I like it because it’s clean and well-designed. I like it because it feels fresh – like moving into a new neighborhood after the one you came from got taken over by fake farms and endless profile picture changes. But most of all I like it because it’s quiet.

Since it’s in limited Beta it means it’s still mostly populated by early adopters. So I can interact with brands like Mashable and Smashing Magazine and feel like I’m part of the conversation – something you can’t really do on Twitter and Facebook with mass-brands like that.

This thing is going to be huge

But alas, this will probably not last. Sooner or later the floodgates will open, and before you know it the once pristine Google+ neighborhood will once again get overrun and fall prey to the meaningless graffiti that also transformed Facebook from social network to chaotic metaverse. Rocky Agrawal sums it perfectly in When Google Circles Collide:

[Google+] doesn’t do anything to solve the biggest problem with social networks today: increasing the signal to noise ratio.

So the masses will descend, and we’ll be back to hunting for pockets of information among the endless streams of data. I’m getting tired just thinking about it.



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