Chapter 5. Evil By Design
The Machiavelli model
The adjective Machiavellian is used to describe someone who aims to deceive and manipulate others for personal advantage. However Machiavelli himself just used his observations of contemporary and historical affairs to suggest the courses of action that were most likely to help 17th Century statesmen (“princes,” or more accurately “merchant princes”) succeed. As such, he was a data driven commentator. Some of the courses of action he recommends are less virtuous, but the more virtuous princes, as he mentions, did not often succeed. He is interested in setting down the facts, and leaving the actions and moral judgments to someone else.
This book gathers observations from contemporary and historical computer applications and Web sites to suggest the courses of design action that are most likely to help modern-day entrepreneurs (the merchant princes of Silicon Valley) succeed.
The principles laid out in each of the seven deadly sin sections can be applied either for good or for evil. How far you take it is up to you. There is a continuum from persuasion to deception. That continuum takes in everything from being totally open, through being economical with or neglecting to mention certain truths, through bent truths and white lies, to all-out deception. I would not go so far as to advocate lies – primarily because lies are difficult to recover from if you are found out. However, this book wouldn’t sell half so well if it was called “Slightly naughty by design.”
Additionally, you can use this information to recognize and avoid being personally persuaded by these principles when they appear on sites you use.
Should you feel bad about deception?
My grandfather was a grocer. He owned a store in a small village. This was in the days when you would enter a store with your shopping list and the grocer would fetch all the items for you off the shelves, rather than making you walk around and collect them yourself. Among the many products he sold, my grandfather was renowned for his Cheddar cheese. Certain customers liked their cheese mild while others liked it strong. My grandfather knew their preferences and, like all good salesmen, he would talk up how good the cheese was. “Ah, Mrs. Jones, we have some lovely creamy mild Cheddar this week – in fact I’ve got some set aside for you,” or “Mr. Smith, how about some more of that sharp Cheddar? It’s good stuff, isn’t it?”
My grandfather would disappear into the back of the store and reappear with a hunk of cheese wrapped in greaseproof paper to be weighed on his balance scales. What the customers didn’t know was that there was just one round of cheese stored in the cold room. Both the strong and the mild cheese were cut from the same block. Undoubtedly Mrs. Jones enjoyed her mild Cheddar just as much as Mr. Smith enjoyed his sharp Cheddar.
On the outside, a typical quiet village grocer’s store. On the inside, a den of deception.
Was my grandfather, a decorated veteran of two world wars, being deceitful? Maybe. Was there more benefit to him than to his customers? In some respects yes – less storage space required, less spoilage of cheese, and so on. Were his customers hurt by his actions? Quite the contrary. They probably savored their cheese even more, knowing that it had been chosen especially for them by their favorite grocer. Much of the effectiveness of the transaction was tied up in the suggestion of the cheese – what it represented – rather than the actual article itself.
Deception helps this cute kid sleep well at night
Young children often worry about monsters under the bed or in the closet. Pixar even created a very successful movie franchise around this idea. Rather than resorting to rational reassurance (“There’s no such thing as monsters”), researchers Liat Sayfan and Kristin Hansen Lagattuta at the Center for Mind and Brain at Univeristy of California, Davis suggest that especially for younger children it is more useful to resolve the issue by staying within their imaginary world. Giving the child a way to be powerful against the monsters, or to see the monsters as less scary helps much more than dismissing the idea of monsters.
This, of course, is deception. It appears from this research that the kids are willing participants in the deception. Even the four-year-olds in the study knew that monsters weren’t real, but they coped better when resolution was framed in terms of the imaginary world.
And that willing complicity in the deception leads to product opportunities. “Monster go away!” spray is a dilute mix of lavender oil in water, packaged specifically with monster banishing in mind.
A shot from the monstergoaway.com site in 2009. The site is no longer active, but the product is still sold.
Deception helps the elderly and infirm stay safe
Fake bus stop outside care facility for Alzheimers sufferers (Dusseldorf, Germany) Photo: AP
Many Alzheimers patients living in care get distressed when their long-term memories conflict with their current situation. As dementia sets in, they are less able to remember current events and so get concerned that they should be returning to the house or companions of their past. Richard Neureither, the director of the Benrath Senior Center in Dusseldorf, suggests that rather than fight this “People with dementia live in their own world. They are not open to rational arguments. One must meet them in their own version of reality.”
The answer, pioneered by Franz-Josef Goebel, Chairman of the Dusseldorf Old Lions Benefit Society, was to create a fake bus stop outside the care facility. Since the residents are free people, they cannot be locked up or restrained with drugs. Some can also get violent when told they can’t leave. By walking the residents to the bus stop – a symbol that many associate with return to their home – staff can give the residents a sense of accomplishment. Because their short-term memory is not very sharp, the residents soon forget why they were waiting for the bus. “We invite them in for a coffee and after five minutes they forget they even intended to leave”
The idea, first implemented at two locations in 2008, was sufficiently successful to be repeated at care homes in Munich, Remscheid, Wuppertal, Herten, Dortmund and Hamburg.
Should you feel bad using the principles in this book?
It’s OK to make money
Capitalist enterprise suggests that it’s OK to profit from business because it keeps you productive and it keeps you innovating. Economic theory suggests that it’s in the capitalist’s best interest to provide a satisfactory level of service to customers. There is not an implicit tension between these two goals. What you have to decide is how far to push the benefit in your direction rather than in your users’.
Somewhere there is a boundary that distinguishes good business practice from evil design. There is a line to draw. Crossing that line puts you in the realm of con artists and criminals. However, the line is wavy. It moves based on public sentiment, political will, judicial powers and personal moral imperatives.
It’s easier to make money from happy customers
If you’re doing things right, your users still value the service you provide, because it is about more than just money. There’s a large element of intangible benefit as well.
There are many kinds of intangible benefit. There is real value to users in providing hedonic satisfaction or the feeling of having worked hard to achieve something. If you are providing users with a tangible product as well, then good for you.
Ultimately, you’re making people happy. People part with their money for many other things in life that make them happy (and many that do not). In fact, the happier you make them, the more of their money they will offer you. Doing something that makes people unhappy is not a good business strategy.
Awareness is half the battle
Don Norman in his book Emotional Design states that we’ve always used affordances and intents to control user behavior. Often times though, we’ve done so without knowing how or why the designs we created worked the way they did. This book lists the patterns that make the affordances and intents explicit. Now you know why you’re doing what you’re doing. You can be purposeful in your designs.
In the introduction, we said evil design creates purposefully designed interfaces that make users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits the designer more than them.
Now perhaps some readers of this book care about more than just turning a quick profit and slinking off into the night. Maybe you want to create a sustainable business, or have even loftier goals such as getting people to lead healthier lifestyles or contribute to a charitable cause. We can re-work the definition of evil design to accommodate these situations.
Who benefits? Your aims determine your approach. Are you just in it for the cash, do you want to create happy customers, do you want to motivate users to improve themselves, or do you want them to give to others?
Commercial design creates purposefully designed interfaces that make users emotionally involved in doing something that provides an equitable benefit to the designer and the user.
Motivational design creates purposefully designed interfaces that make users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits them even though they would not chose to do it unaided.
Charitable design creates purposefully designed interfaces that make users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits society more than either themselves or the designer.
The patterns in this book are written so that you can take advantage of them for any of these different end goals. There were probably some examples in this book that made you wince. There were others that made you laugh, and still more that you took notes on so that you could integrate them into your business practices.
Whether you intend to create evil, commercial, motivational or charitable designs, make sure you do so purposefully rather than accidentally. Engaging users on an emotional rather than rational level is the key to persuading them to get involved.