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On UX Ethics: Disruptive, Deceptive, and Despicable UX

Alongside the cognitive revolution of brain sciences in the '80s and' 90s, transformations in the technology and business sectors birthed "design thinking", which makes use of the form of an object or interface to reach into the mind of the user.

User experience design (UX) derives from that strategy. As an aspiring UX designer with a background in cognitive science and psychology, I'm fascinated by how deeply design can affect our very cognitive functioning: the way we react to design lead to significant differences in the quality of our lives, the bottom line of a business, and even the philosophies that shape the norms of our society.

Design as Psychotechnology

In cognitive science, any technology with a profound impact on our psychology may be referred to as psychotechnology. This impact is usually widespread, leading to shifts in societal functioning, organization, and philosophy - literacy is one example. Social scientists theorize that literacy gave us systematic thought,  including logical thinking and the ability to make and maintain long-term plans.

"Design can manipulate the way our brains work."

I believe user experience design is a kind of micro-psychotechnology. It doesn't shape all of society, but thoughtful design can play along with our psychology, changing how we react (or don't react) to specific things. Design can manipulate the way our brains work.

That's a powerful tool - and power is vulnerable to corruption.

The Design of Evil

UX design features used for nefarious purposes differ in degrees of power: some cause more harm than others, and some are more obvious to spot. Some are just annoying but easy to notice (like a pop-up), whereas others can be deeply harmful and carefully tucked away (like an adware toolbar hidden among software installation options for a legitimate application).

To examine how UX can be used and abused, its consequences, and ways to avoid committing evil design, I've divided common examples into three categories: Disruptive, Deceptive, and Despicable design. All have varying levels of user harm and devious degrees of careful camouflage.

Disruptive Design: Things that Annoy

Low Harm, Easy to Notice

Disruptive design lulls the user into a false sense of comfort then interrupt their experience with antagonizing features. As users form  expectations for interactions the design should fulfill them: this generates a continuous flow of experience. Disruptive design breaks this flow by preventing users from having the interactions they expected.

This  causes enormous pain points and user annoyance. The result is angry users who circumvent these features using AdBlock and proxies or avoiding the companies who created these features entirely.


Cluttering content with intrusive ads and page loads.

Some article content is available but the rest is hidden from users by advertisements or links to other articles. Requiring users to click "READ MORE" or "NEXT PAGE" after they have already started reading is extremely painful. HuffingtonPost and any clickbait site are guilty of this.

Disruptive design on HuffPost's mobile site: advertising blocking content.

Delayed popups and location-based blocks.

After the user has seen some content (e.g. article title, introduction, sample articles, video title or thumbnail), they are greeted with a popup that blocks further access. In news sites, this popup prompts for a paid subscription. In some streaming sites (Netflix,  YouTube, Hulu) this prevents any access, based on location. On UltimateGuitar, the popup prompts the user to download the mobile app. This frustrating feature breaks user flow via false promises of content and, in the last case, also disrupts the user's musical process.

Oh, sorry, were you expecting the video we let you click on to play? Nope!

Deliberately mobile-unfriendly design.

Only one example comes mind here: UltimateGuitar is one of the worst culprits of disruptive design. On top of delayed popups, they also deliberately design the mobile website to be frustrating to use. They have disabled  pinch-to-zoom to content in their mobile site to prevent musicians from being able to view an entire line of tabs on their screen. Their design is intensively user-antagonsitic to push an unwanted product (the mobile app) onto users.

Unlike its desktop site, the mobile site exclusively doesn't have chord charts!

How to Design It Better

  • Don't make false promises by showing users titles (Netflix) of thumbnails (YouTube, Hulu) of content they are not able to access. Be upfront with them if you disallow certain content or features to non-subscribers. As for sample content on news sites: be honest from the first page load and inform users you are offering a limited selection of free content. The Economist is a great example of this.
  • Don't break user flow to force unwanted popups onto them. If you aren't sure what users want, ask them!  You can use user research, SEO tools, and market research to figure out if the feature you are offering is something your users actually want or need. Otherwise, these popups become primary reasons for users to avoid your services.

Deceptive Design: Things that Betray

Medium Harm, Typically Disguised

Deceptive design toys with users' trust. Often, this type of design hides unwanted things behind ones users are actually seeking. It sneaks programs, adware/malware, subscription, and even purchases users do not want or need into their devices, resulting in decreased user trust and loyalty.

Users who fall prey to deceptive design may suffer security risks, financial losses, and frustration. At best, your user base learns to circumvent deceptive design, but don't expect them to not hold it against you. At worst, they will blacklist you, even if they would have otherwise continued using your services.


Deceptive downloads.

Deceptive design manipulates users' attention or beliefs to make them install unwanted applications. By making "download" buttons for unrelated software extra-salient using sizing and colouration, users' attentions are drawn to download files they weren't seeking. And sometimes, even when the user is installing a program they do want, unwanted applications are checked off to install alongside the legitimate program, leading less attentive users to install unwanted adware or malware.

Subtle subscriptions & notifications.

In signing up for services or installing applications, email or mobile push notifications are turned on by default. Knowing that users are unlikely to search through the settings of every single app and  online account to unsubscribe each one, deceptive design makes use of yes-by-default subscription features to foist their content onto uninterested users.

Shopping cart stowaways.

On some ecommerce websites, add-ons show up checked off by default in users' checkout pages.

A sneaky add-on is automatically added onto users' shopping carts. Courtesy of this article: http://blog.usabilla.com/dark-patterns-may-the-force-be-with-ux/

How to Design It Better

The temptation of deceptive design is often financial opportunity. Bundling less-appealing products with what users do seek may seem like a good idea for short-term gain but in the long term earn the guilty business little user loyalty. Instead, be upfront; mistrust destroys user bases.

A meaningful alternative would be to use user-targeted advertising. If funds are necessary, at least choose advertising that would target users' needs and wants. Google AdWords is a way to do this; another would be content analysis combined with a study of user base demographics.

Despicable Design: Things that Hypnotize

High Harm, Usually Unconscious

Despicable design is the most evil form of UX because users themselves rarely see through the harms of these designs. Yet its functioning fixes the way we see ourselves and interact with one another.

Despicable design plays with people's psychology to manipulate their fears, hopes, and desires. It guarantees an addicted user base, at the cost of users' wellbeing: these features reduce empathy, train impatience, and corrupt the social fabric of humanity. In the long term, it also gives the design's creator an unsavoury reputation among users.


Social Media "Likes" (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Black Mirror)

The effect of social media brownie points is best captured by Season 3 Episode 1 ("Nosedive")  of the dark technological satire series, Black Mirror. In a world too similar to our own, characters build their self-worth, relationships, and entire lives around how highly others "rate them" in a social media app. Sound familiar? The kicker: the protagonist becomes so enveloped in the ratings system that she has no self-worth, no friends, and no (legally-acceptable) life by the end.

Lacie, the protagonist, checking out her rating in the (black) mirror.

Virtual brownie points degrade real life relations and ultimately reduce us to a hollow shadow of our true selves. For a true case study,  this former Instagram star famously revealed her own epiphany about this phenomenon.

Hook-Up Apps (Tinder, Grindr, etc)

Like social media "likes", these apps degrade real social interactions. Moreover, they place such emphasis on shallow (visual) first impressions that the already-alienating nature of hook-up culture is further distilled into an even more vapid version of itself. This design affords dehumanization.

"Shallowfication" of human interaction.

Fake News Websites.

By not stating it's biases and explicitly using sensationalist prose, fake news websites skew user perceptions of how the world actually exists. Not only is this unfair to users, but it also has profound consequences for the state of the world, as evidenced in the 2016 US Presidential Elections.

How to Design It Better

Design with your audience's vulnerabilities in mind! A user-centered design does not merely anticipate what users will respond to - it also anticipates what users need. Good design attracts users; great design affords users access to that which are important to their happiness and well-being.

Designers Have A Moral Calling

I firmly believe there is a higher moral calling for any human being. But this moral calling is especially important for those with the power to shape others' thoughts, actions, and habits. This, of course, hints at the moral calling for UX designers.

UX designers have a moral calling to avoid user pain, frustration, and harm as much as necessary - if ever business goals are prioritized above user experience, this is a moral failing.

Design has immense power to affect human psychology and this power imparts responsibility.

As part of this responsibility, designers must make every effort to prioritize user needs and disavow evil UX.

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