Let’s talk about manipulative products

A lot of bright people I know have a surprising blind spot.

It’s a widely-held sentiment that advertising is evil, or at least tricky. It seems particularly common among those who consider themselves intellectuals to assert that advertising is a scourge. That is — except among intellectuals who work in advertising, which is a lot of people. Because to be good at advertising, you have to have the ability to do some complex empathic and strategic thought. Great creators of advertising can understand and articulate deep truths about people that others might “know” only implicitly, as part of the whole of being human. Then they come from the other side, and find experiences or desires that relate powerfully to those truths. The union of those two (plus a product pitch) results in ads that resonate personally with a large proportion of people.

It makes sense to feel wary of anyone capable of understanding you better than you understand yourself, and especially someone capable of exploiting that understanding for the benefit of some company. That’s manipulation — it’s holding uncontrolled power over you. Some manipulation is bad, sure, but some is good. Consider when parents trick their children into eating healthy food. Parents talk proudly about the clever ways they get their kids to eat healthily. Nobody is offended by it. But the kind of manipulation that offends people is manipulation they don’t notice — and that’s what they ascribe to advertising. It’s too subtle, too beautiful, too constant, and it’s all manipulative.

Something surprises me about this widespread icky feeling people have about advertising. It’s that they don’t also have that feeling about product design — especially web and app design. Perhaps it is because they think about the advertising industry and understand basically that ads are trying to get them to do something, but they don’t think much about product designers, or understand that products are trying to get them do something too.

Product design is more subtle, and much, much more powerful. And when it is elegant and keen, most people don’t know enough to feel manipulated by it. “Evil” product design — whether of an app or a website, or a physical thing you use in daily life — has much more potential to manipulate you quietly than ads. (If that gives you the willies, google “dark patterns” and “persuasive design”.) Products guide your behavior all day, every day through their design, and you acquiesce to them every second.

You are using a device right now that with its bright light, crisp display, and access to constantly fresh communication asks you to focus on it. And you do. When you first used that device, it taught you how to interact with it physically. If it’s a handheld thing, you probably hold it in the way its designers wanted you to, perhaps sometimes to the detriment of your posture or your achy wrist. And almost certainly to the detriment of your experience of the rest of the physical world, at least in stints.

A more mundane example. Ever pulled on a door, then noticed a sign that said, “push”? Felt pretty dumb? Probably the handle on that door was designed for the other side, the pull side, and you obeyed it, ignoring the arrangement of the door and space around it, and the sign. Its design commanded you, and you obeyed. Very stealthy. While the door handle is really an example of inept product design, not malice, it demonstrates a designer’s power over you. The intent of the person who made that door handle was for it to say, “hey, pull me!” And you did, against your better judgement.

Especially online, where new designs proliferate wildly due to easy implementation, we all encounter new ways for products to manipulate us every day. In fact, trying loads of designs to see which is the most persuasive to users is a beloved and much-discussed strategy of internet companies — one you’ve probably heard of. That’s A/B testing. Amidst these constant experiments, we can hardly become experts on what to expect.

So what should we do about this designed world we live in, to avoid being manipulated? Probably the same thing we do about advertising: discuss it in the public space, for audiences outside the industry itself. Let’s recognize the power of product design, particularly digital products, and help more consumers understand how products shape their actions.

And those of us who create products ourselves (like me, I admit), let’s educate our users responsibly about their options, and our intentions. We’ve got lots of tools at our disposal — blogs, product descriptions, marketing, notifications, FAQs — so let’s be clear and honest about what goals we have for our product. And maybe along the way we’ll understand our customers’ goals better, and make better things that nudge us all toward better lives.