User-centered Design – Are you sure you want to do that?

user-centered design quote from harry bringuli

I’ve been a critic of the way things work for as long as I can remember. This button here, that switch over there, this instruction before that one. Design, it seems, has always been part of me. My father, an aerospace engineer by trade, probably influenced a bit of that, but there is also a “nature” aspect, that I think is just ingrained in me. So, user-centered design comes pretty naturally to me. All of this is to say, I’m a bit of a critic when it comes to how things work. That’s especially so when I perceive things have been designed to trick me, and there seem to be quite a few people trying to trick me these days.

What is user-centered design

What is user-centered design though? I can design a user-centered solution that only serves to mislead or misdirect the user by leveraging their psychology against them, or I can design a solution that empathizes with the user and is helpful and pleasing. The more I’ve learned about the way humans design things, the more I’ve discovered empathetic user-centered design is too rare. Because the vast majority of what constitutes design is completed by businesses interested in turning a profit, the designs of their products are destined to serve that end more than any other. There are often products that come close to being fully user-centered and, even more rarely, a few that succeed in their user-centeredness. Craigslist, the online classified ads giant, to me is a great example of a success in empathetic user-centered design. It only sells a small number of its ads, in a very small number of cities out of the hundreds where Craigslist exists. The price of an ad was actually set by users, early on in the life of the website. Useless tools and design features aren’t added to improve revenue or keep customers hooked on Craigslist. Craigslist has stood the test of time and remains extremely functional, and widely used, in the face of a vast array of pointless services, and unnecessary features that have invaded its market over the years. Is it perfect? No, but everything about the site is designed to be useful to everyone who uses it. Does it end up helping their business in the end? Yes, because decisions are made with users in mind. Do things that benefit and empathize with your users and you’ll reap the rewards.

Dark Patterns

Dark patterns are at the opposite end of the user-centered spectrum. They are usually sales tactics that attempt to leverage a user’s psychology in order to gain something from them for the business. They are also unethical. The most recent trend in dark patterns is called confirmshaming, a tactic that employs covertly demeaning language in an attempt to persuade the user to continue some screen flow, most typically surrendering an email in the end. Make no mistake: this design is user-centered, but it is devoid of empathy. It is borderline nefarious, because it attempts to use someone’s mental self-defense mechanisms to get something out of them that the business wants, usually an email address. Confirmshaming assumes all users will act on their impulses, and much of the time that’s true. Confirmshaming is just one type of dark pattern in UX that tries to leverage human psychology against the people using the system. Designs that minimize dismissal buttons and accentuate purchase buttons, misrepresent charge amounts and automatically enroll people in email lists they probably don’t want to be on are all nefarious dark patterns.

Whether you’re designer, developer or business owner, ask yourself a few simple questions when you’re thinking about your product and what it might be doing to your users:

5 Key Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Digital Product

  1. Do I like using this product?
  2. How do I feel when I’m using my product?
  3. Does this product feel helpful to me in some way, or is just full of interruptions and distractions?
  4. Would I like this product if it wasn’t mine?
  5. Am I trying to take advantage of my user?

Craigslist and dark patterns are just two examples at opposite ends of the ethical-unethical UX spectrum. Businesses are left to make critical decisions on their UX everywhere in between, at many turns throughout the design of their products, whatever those products happen to be.