A Critical Design Sprint Tool

The Rules of the Cold-Reading Cards

Making with Theory: Interaction Design Meets the Science of Pseudoscience

Don’t believe in fortune, but don’t live without it.

This literal translation of Turkish proverb about fortune-telling offers an insight into how some of us like to hear desired things about our futures although we already know that they are ungrounded.

While searching for inspiration for my thesis at Carnegie Mellon around trust and conversational interfaces, with the help of my primary thesis advisor, Dr Dan Lockton, I came across the notion of “cold reading”.

Photo by Jose Antonio Gallego Vázquez

What is Cold Reading?

Cold reading refers to a set of techniques that people such as scam artists, mediums, fortune-tellers, palm readers, and illusionists use to convince their clients that they know much more about them than they do. An experienced cold-reader can gain a lot of information about their client by just analyzing their body language, age, clothing, gender, religion, race or ethnicity, place of origin, or simply how they speak. The cold readers will do some high probability guesses to see which ones are true while their clients also revealing more bits of information about themselves. Then they use this new information to guide their reading by taking advantage of their clients’ confirmation biases. As a reader proposes a “possible future”, their clients’ interpret and favor the readings in a way that confirm their beliefs or living ideals. In other words, because of our confirmation bias, we tend to believe unfounded good things that our reader told us would happen.

The Process of Persuasive Design by Human Factors International Inc.

The relationship between cold-reading and design

While every “reader” has their own technique, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, Ray Hyman, outlined such techniques as “the rules of cold-reading” in an article in 1977, called “ Cold Reading: How to Convince Strangers That You Know All About Them”. According to Hyman, there are 13 rules of cold-reading. Reading these techniques and doing a quick web check on them, I recognized and saw that they are also used in many different fields related to design such as marketing. While they are aligned with other persuasive techniques that are already used in interaction design, I decided to use these rules to make designers think critically while using them since they tend to be classified as dark patterns. In a way, “to confirm my own confirmation bias”, I reframed these techniques as a critical design sprint.

The Rules of The Cold Reading Cards (Higher Resolution)

Making with Theory: A Critical Design Sprint

Different from other design sprints, this sprint consists of a 10–15 minutes whiteboard challenge in one session. In my experiments with my classmates, we always worked as peers: a person to take the challenge and another person to help him/her during the process with brainstorming etc. as well as moderating the challenge.

Here are the five steps of the sprint as December, 2017:
1. Choose a Domain:
Roll the dice of domains to find out which industry you will design for. 
2. Learn the Cold-Reading Technique: Draw a technique card and learn how cold-readers use it to trick their clients.
3. Find the Solution: Find an existing interaction design solution in your domain that uses similar design pattern to the technique in your card in 5 minutes.
4. Reverse Design the Solution: Role-play the designer of this solution. Write down what the problem are you solving, your users’ goals and needs, and why you must use your technique to solve this problem in 5 minutes.
5. Pitch Your Solution and Self-Critique: Using your notes, pitch your solution to your peer. Then, discuss what value using your technique will bring in your domain and what can go wrong using it in 5 minutes.

Defining the Medium of Artifact

So far, I tried building the challenge artifact in different mediums to guide designers’ through the challenge. I started with designing the cards to be printed. At first, each card had the instructions on its back, which I realized that it was too much repetition, and it would need to be printed, possibly with an accompanying worksheet.

Introduction page of the sprint site from the Invision mockup

After some rounds of pilot testing with my friends, I decided to turn these cards into a mobile website to enable all designers around the world to easily try the challenge themselves. Although it isn’t finalized yet, the website will have all materials and techniques that guide the challenge. I mainly used an Invision mock-up to explain the challenge to my friends. Since the Invision mockup only consists of only one card and a domain, I also used a physical dice mockup that I did earlier as well as referring cards from a slide deck.

First Prototype of the Mobile App. View it on Invision

Pilot User Test

Over a weekend, I conducted pilot tests of the sprint with 10 participants to see how they interpret the sprint and what are some areas to improve. All of my participants were graduate design students from different backgrounds in design and other disciplines. For a majority of participants, it was their first “whiteboard challenge”, but it didn’t stop them from immediately thinking loud and writing down how they think as they are used to ‘whiteboarding’.

Some Learnings from the Pilot Study

  • All of the participants find the study interesting and different in terms of being critical about things that they would normally propose in a real design challenge.
  • At first some participants had issues with scoping down or finding an existing interaction design solution that uses a similar technique to their card. Giving them another example from another card helped a lot.
  • Some of the cards/cold-reading techniques found to be associated with interaction design easier than others. For example, participants found it easier to come up with an example that uses the technique: “Use a gimmick such as a crystal ball or palm reading” than “Set the stage for your reading”.
  • Some of my participants gave examples explicitly from conversational interfaces, which I didn’t expect. That may be due to the fact that they are aware that I’m working on conversational interfaces since they are my studio friends, but it was very interesting to see them (somehow naturally) associating these techniques with my thesis context.

Closing Thoughts

This work helped me to dive in a very different side of design and psychology that I haven’t thought about before. While I had some ethical concerns at first when I explored these topics, I have seen that they are very similar to what designers are already using but hasn’t been framed in this way. Acknowledging this made me frame this theory of cold-reading in a way that it would be both useful for practice but also will ask designers to self-critique themselves while they were thinking about taking advantage of other’s biases.

Next Steps

Although I moved away using any kind of deception or dark persuasion methods in my thesis, I will finalize the development of the mobile site as a way to give back to the design community as well as hear from others on how they would use it or similar approaches. I believe thinking about these type of techniques critically is especially important in our era when designers are personifying the algorithms to make technologies more humane. As designers, we should always be aware of the consequences of our design decisions and show our intentionality through our designs even if we don’t think about using such patterns. As the Turkish proverb hinted at the beginning, we shouldn’t believe in pseudoscience but we shouldn’t also live without it.

Thanks for stopping by!
I’m doing more experiments like this in my thesis about conversational interfaces and trust. You can follow my live thesis publication, visit my portfolio or simply contact me. I’m always interested in being distracted by learning about related works, research on human-machine trust.