Two wishes in 2014

What the wrathful, cynical Internet has done to us and to UX

A wish for all of us

Justine Sacco, a random PR person for an organization few people had heard of, made a racist remark about Africa, HIV, and white privilege. Thousands of people jump onto Twitter to take her down, as if she’s so important to the overall conversation of race, class, privilege that taking her down is the most important step forward in African civil rights since Nelson Mandela walked out of Robben Island. In the end, they get their wish, and the social media mavens of the world get another cautionary tale to blog about and goose their Klout score. (And yes, I get the irony of me writing something on her.)

Maybe this would be news if these “injustices” didn’t happen every hour of every day on social media. But every single day The Most Outrageous Thing To Happen Since Five Minutes Ago comes flying across Twitter, demanding I pick up my pitchfork and torch or else I am part of the problem.

In the early days of the web, we were all nerds. Geeks. Spazzs. Computer programmers, scientists, college kids, and teens with 2400 baud modems building websites, conversing over the Usenet, and generally finding our people while the world around us hated us. We had been bullied and beaten down, but there were people just like us, that shared our interests, on the other side of the world.

And we went on to be the ones who built this web we now know, as engineers, as designers, as content creators, as entrepreneurs. The web we built gave us power in a society that had long given us none. We even used our technical savvy to elect a president, then turned the 2012 election into a battle fought using the web and data analytics.

But somewhere along the way, the bullied became the bullies. The system we built to give us power was libertarian and libertine. And through those means the freedom we gave ourselves fell into the hands of a wrathful tribe out to pin a scarlet A on today’s Hester Prynne.

Meanwhile, the marketers, out to make a quick buck, set out to social engineer our web. And with that, the listicles, “one weird tricks,” and Upworthy emotional linkbait came to the fore of the 2013 web. Our web is now a social game: How do I trick you into caring long enough that you’ll see the ads I’m selling?

Kathy Sierra returned to the open web in 2013. (You may remember her as one of our great thinkers about the web and culture in the 1990s and 2000s, until she was run off the self-same web by a nest of back-biting bullies.) One of her recurring themes since she’s come back has been operant conditioning, behavioralist BF Skinner’s idea that the consequences of actions, whether negative or positive, reinforce whether the behavior continues. For Sierra, this web we’ve built is nothing but positive and negative reinforcements of behavior — bad behaviors, mostly.

We get in on the Justine Sacco melee because it feels good to be part of the crowd, and racist sucks OK? We get in with Anonymous because their brand of vigilante justice appeals to our own sense of justice. The homophobia, sexism, and conspiracy of umpteen comment sections. Our fear of Internet bullies turning their eyes upon us (exponentially so if you’re a woman).

But what have we become? We are now a crowd in search of a riot. We go from cause celebre to listicle to emotion-tugging video because that’s what gets us through another day of work, school, whatever. We want to be jacked up by the hits.

We live in fear we’ll be found out. One moment of foolishness on Twitter and the angry mob turns on us. One disgruntled person posts one thing about us on Facebook and we’re a meme. Fear turns to paranoia. Anything to avoid that scarlet A.

I wish, in 2014, we would work to end this addiction to the quick hit. Before we grab the pitchfork and torch, ask some questions: Is it worth it? What do I get if I “win?” Does it better society for us to battle?

What if it was me the angry mob came for?

Let us speak truth to power, not wield power upon the powerless.

A wish for the UX community

What of us designers? My entire profession of user experience wraps itself around the ideas of “delight” and “gamification” as we try to keep users engaged long enough to not run off to our competitor’s application. We’re playing the same psychological games with our users as the SEO experts we so deride, but we pretend that because it’s “design” we’re somehow above these petty gimmicks.

Yet we embrace the dark patterns in the name of “better UX.” We make people lust and want for our products through design. We make them envious when others are “doing better” at our “game” than them. We designers have become inadvertent pushers of the emotional high.

Unengaging designs aren’t desirable. We’re taught that. Desirable design has a higher return on investment than bland design. But, what happens when design focuses too highly on desirable, on clickable? You start losing usability. Perhaps a bookmobile isn’t a desirable library structure, but it’s certainly usable, and certainly more usable that the beautiful, but baffling, Seattle Central Library.

If this loose and shaky confederation of fields we call “user experience” is going to become a sustainable practice, we must figure out the balance between usable and desirable. “Give them what they want” (behavioral design, in Norman’s parlance) needs to be balanced with “give them what they need” (reflective design).

In 2014, I wish the UX community would think about these psychological games we’re playing with our users. Are we using design to foster good patterns in people? Or are we just paving the cowpaths for more bad user behavior?

I am not saying we walk away from emotional design or “delight.” But for design to be sustainable, we don’t need users who, left emotionally hung over, regret every click, every action they can take on the web. If they do, the purpose for user experience is nothing more than as a pusher. And despite cinematic evidence to the contrary, being a pusher isn’t a sustainable career path.