The ethical dilemma designers face

19 October 2018 | Design Thinking

For years I’ve had the same argument run through my mind. I know that changing the word on that button will convert the sales by roughly 1.3% more. I know this because our copywriter specialist told us to do it, we split tested it and it came out that way. I know that’s good for the company. I know that’s part of my job. And theirs. But is it good for the customer? Is it good for the world?

We say we side with the customers a lot in UX design but are we here? Who are we really serving?

Do those sales mean they really wanted this or did I play on some kind of heuristic that made them click and buy something they wouldn’t have otherwise? Did they make a healthy choice for themselves or did I trick their mind into thinking it was?

That invisible ethical line of conversion optimization, where does it get drawn? At changing the color of a button? The experience of a design? A click-baity headline? An opt-in you can’t easily get out of? Hiring a conversion copywriter consultant? Changing the hook cycle of the user workflow to create habits? Playing on our biases or neurological structures such as urgency and scarcity?

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In my personal life, I rile up against the gaming culture, consumerism and sugar addiction that adults have, and are leaving as a destructive legacy for their kids. I try not to participate in most of it at all. I have seen first hand the impact it has and how it essentially creates mini addicts that require come downs. I haven’t worked out which of the three is the harder addiction to break. It is, when viewed closely and objectively, quite terrifying.

One of the principles of game design (and design overall) is habit creation. The experience is designed to build habits. We all know this. We all know now that social media plays on our culture and brain makeup to keep luring us back. We know that game design is used across disciplines because of how effective it is.

Clicking and engagement are just nicer words for addiction.

Should we be designing healthy, enjoyable experiences, and/or experiences that solve a problem or should we be designing to get people to shop or keep coming back or purchase more? Is there a balanced overlap?

At the moment, we largely engage people by stimulating their now conditioned instincts for consumerism. We engage people by forgoing community. We activate people by being detrimental to their health or financial circumstances.

Whilst listening to Jaron Lanier, a VR specialist on the Ezra Klein show recently, he mentioned that we “engage people by ruining society. That is the business model”. Indeed, most of the highest positioned tech-execs in the Valley excessively limit the exposure their kids have to their own technology.

One of the questions of an Essentialist is asking if this is time well spent. Is this? Are we happy with what we do beneath this action or does this action make you temporarily happy to the end of company profit?

If you’re a big company this dilemma gets even worse because you have to do whats in the interest of your shareholders. And that comes above the interest of your consumers in a weird legal way. Your shareholders can actually sue you for doing something that is not in their benefit. For example, doing something good for the public may mean profits go down a little even though a positive data point goes up, which may get you sued or your stock price sinks lower for more than just your action because shareholders leave. This is obviously the case in companies that sell shitty food too.

Is this one of the reasons why companies are turning into B-Corps more and more?

I don’t have the answers to any of these things but I do think we need to be talking about them in our circles a lot more. We can have major disagreements. We can have healthy debate. We can change our minds and opinions. You can draw a line very differently from where I do and we should discuss why we’ve set our boundaries here or there. I know I’m looking for good arguments on both sides of this spectrum.

What do you think?

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