With great persuasion comes great responsibility: Ethics in design

A discussion on ethics and responsible product design

It’s no secret that design can be used to influence behaviour. The way information is presented, the words and images used, are all intentional decisions made by a business with goals. Think of the advertising industry — where every word and font is carefully selected to hook the maximum number of customers. We work in a similar way in the digital world.

In the late 80’s, Don Norman (the grandfather of User Centered Design) proposed that for a design to be successful it must align to the needs and psychology of people. And because of this, good designers should be versed in principles of psychology.

Fast-forward to present day and the tech world has taken this to heart.

Every day, we apply psychology principles to our digital and interaction design so we can encourage specific behaviour in our products. And we’re getting good at it. We’re deliberately persuasive, yet unlike the advertising industry, there’s no regulation in place to ensure we do so ethically. It’s up to individuals and teams to keep themselves, and their products, in check.

Psychology in Product Design

If you’ve ever discussed your users’ motivations, needs, abilities or triggers, you’ve discussed human psychology. Simply put, psychology is the science of feeling, thought and behaviour.

If you pause and look, you’ll find that psychology is abundant in product design. A prime example is B.J. Fogg’s famous Behaviour Model, which is frequently referenced as an argument to increase usability (a.k.a. the user’s ability) in product design.

The model shows three elements must converge at the same moment for a behaviour to occur (motivation, ability, and trigger). The model serves as a tool to understand why users aren’t performing a desired behaviour.

Fogg’s Behaviour Model

Or maybe you’ve discussed the use of anchoring in your design, or how you can leverage your customers’ loss aversion? Both terms (along with many others) represent human heuristics and were made popular by psychologist and behavioural economist D. Kahneman.

In his book, “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Kahneman explains that humans are busy creatures with complicated lives, and as a result, often turn to short-cuts in logic and reasoning to save time and energy. He refers to these short-cuts as heuristics.

We can use these heuristics to encourage specific behaviour in our products, and we do. In fact this has become so popular that there are several tools available to help you do just that. Check out Mental Notes or Persuasive Patterns; tool kits designed to help you “bring a little psychology to your web design”. Or head to the ui-patterns.com website for lessons on how to use anchoring, loss aversion, or status quo bias in your interactions. And guess what? It works.

Mental Notes card kit

Feeling a bit icky? Read on.

Perhaps you’ve had conversations around creating a habit-forming product? A hot topic at the moment, with much dialogue being sparked from the book “Hooked” by N. Eyal (another behavioural economist). Using principles from psychology, the book presents a four step ‘hook cycle’ that can be embedded into products to form a habit that brings customers back again and again.

You’ll know when an app is habit forming because you’ll find yourself using it without even realising you’ve taken out your phone.


All this clever use of psychology is great as long as it’s used for good, on products that provide genuine value or improve peoples’ lives. But what about when it’s used for self-serving goals, or worse, malicious purposes at the expense of users? Who is going to monitor this? And what responsibility do designers and product makers have to their audience? Big and important questions that have yet to be answered.

The good news is that many of those working within product design are already thinking about ways we can ensure we use our powers for good, and have proposed several approaches to aid in that goal.

Frameworks for ethical product design

Libertarian Paternalism

It’s impossible to have a truly neutral design, and the way we display options can have a huge impact on the choices people make. This is the position taken by behavioural scientists R. Thaler and C. Sunstein in their influential book “Nudge.” They argue it’s the designer’s responsibility to organise the context in which people make decisions, and they call this intentional choice design Choice Architecture.

They go on to explain how we can use choice architecture to persuade (or nudge) others into making certain choices — the choices we’d like them to make. But how should we use this new-found power?

To keep ourselves in check, Thaler and Sunstein propose an approach called Libertarian Paternalism, which states nudges should be used to help people make better choices as judged by themselves. They argue choice architects should preserve freedom of choice, while nudging people in directions that will improve their lives. People should still be free to do what they like, easily.

They also go on to reference the publicity principle of 1971 (John Rawls), as a guideline for implementing and constraining nudges. In its simplest form, the publicity principle bans government from selecting a policy that it would not be able or willing to defend publicly to its own citizens. It means you should be willing to give full transparency around how your product works and why; it’s about honesty and respect for your customers.

Regret Test

Continuing on the theme of full transparency, we have N. Eyal’s Regret Test. Simply put, Eyal argues we shouldn’t do unto others something they wouldn’t want done to them. He writes that when assessing whether a proposed technique is ethical, we must ask ourselves: “If our customers knew everything we know, would they still complete the intended behaviour? And would they regret doing it?”

And the best way to find this out is by speaking to your customers. Ask for their opinion. The same way you would test a design or concept, test your tactics. If you find your customers would not want to complete the behaviour, or they would regret doing it, then you have failed the regret test and your technique should not be employed.

“Getting people to do something they didn’t want to do is no longer persuasion — it’s coercion.”

Chew on that.

Manipulation Matrix

Another framework offered by N. Eyal is the Manipulation Matrix. A decision support tool when working with habit-forming products, the matrix can help you answer the question: should I be hooking users onto my product? (Is it ethical?)

To use the tool, ask yourself two questions: “Will I use the product myself?” and “Will the product help users materially improve their lives?” — And see where you land.

Manipulation Matrix www.NirAndFar.com

The Facilitator: The ideal state, this is where you most want to end up with your product. Here you’re creating something that you’ll use yourself and believe will make your users’ lives better. You’re facilitating a healthy habit.

The Entertainer: This is fun for the sake of fun. Here you would use the product yourself, but admit it doesn’t improve your customers’ lives. You’re making entertainment, which is important for its own sake.

The Peddler: This is the opposite of the entertainer; you’re improving the lives of your users but wouldn’t use the product yourself. There can be healthy reasons why you wouldn’t use your own product (for example if you’re working on an app for pregnant women and you happen to be a man), but make sure you ask yourself seriously why you won’t use it. You may find yourself admitting the product doesn’t offer any real value. Which would make you…

The Dealer: This is the no-no zone. Eyal takes a firm stance saying, designing a habit-forming product that you wouldn’t use yourself and you don’t believe improves customers’ lives is called exploitation. And that the only presumable reason to go down this road is to make money, adding “where there is cash, there will always be someone willing to take it. The question is: Is that someone you?”

Align to a purpose

Our final framework comes again from N. Eyal. He writes “Align your work with a purpose that provides you with meaning and helps cultivate meaning for others. This is not only a moral imperative, it’s good business practice.” He goes on to explain that the most highly regarded entrepreneurs are driven by meaning, a vision for greater good that drives them forward.

Here at SEEK, we have a unified purpose over-arching our organisation:

“We help people live more fulfilling and productive working lives and help organisations succeed.”

All our product visions, initiatives and goals align upwards to this purpose. This guides us and our thinking, provides clarity, and makes sure we always stay on course to helping improve our customers’ lives (and thereby avoiding the dreaded “dealer” zone).

Our SEEK purpose: 
“We help people live more fulfilling and productive working lives and help organisations succeed.”

Who’s responsible for ethical product design?

In short, we all are.

Regardless of role or function, if you’re in the business of making products, you have a responsibility to ensure your design is ethical.

It’s all too common to outsource the job of ‘empathy’ or ‘championing the user’ to designers, but that way of thinking is outdated. We all have a responsibility to our customers, and to keep our persuasive powers in check.

To borrow a phrase from Voltaire (and more recently, a spidey-sensed hero): With great power comes great responsibility.

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