I’ve always believed that a user experience designer’s job is to balance the needs between the user or customer and the business that is providing products or services to that user. UX designers are sometimes called user advocates, because they try to advocate for a smooth and pleasant user experience wherever anyone interfaces with the company. Now, for a website, the idea of making it usable is obviously beneficial. But when it comes to other user needs, just whose side should a UX designer be on? The end user’s, or the company that pays him or her?
This question gets complicated really fast. The business hired the designer to make them more profitable. So they should focus on the business needs more than the customer’s, right? Except that while the paycheck comes from the business, the business gets its money from the customers, and if the customers aren’t happy, they’ll abandon the company and there will be less money to go around. So designers should focus on user needs to keep them happy, right?
Well…what about companies that employ so-called dark patterns to keep their users hooked?
Dark patterns are experiences that intentionally go against user needs in favor of the company. For example, try closing your Amazon account. There are a bunch of hoops that you have to go through to do so. It’s not very obvious and you can be sent in circles. A fairly comprehensive list of these patterns can be found at darkpatterns.org.
These tactics can be despicable but effective. Yet as these are exposed, they often backfire against the company and customers lose their trust. Still, there are less deceptive ways of getting users to sign up for something or directing them to do something they would normally not do. Some of these seem to help the business, but could be doing more subtle damage than dark patterns. Let’s take popup windows as an example. The window might ask you to put in your email to receive a newsletter. Harmless, right? The user can just X out of there. The designer can justify its presence by citing the 5% of people who sign up. Seems like something useful to have from a business perspective. The problem is that 95% of people have to take the extra step to close it out and never wanted to see it. That’s not good UX. That’s just annoying.
My stance on this is that while it is definitely a balancing act, designers should focus more on the user. Long term, it will help the company, even it executives don’t see that, even if the data doesn’t support it right away. Remember how I mentioned UX designers being called user advocates? They are pretty much the only ones in the company. Who else would be? The executives, who have no interface with customers and are trying to drive a profit? The sellers, who do interface with clients but are trying to push their product onto them? Customer service, who has to listen to complaints all day long, including complaints about the user interface? No, it’s up to the designers, who should look beyond the raw data to see the person on the other side of the screen. Empathy needs to be a designer’s most important trait.
Design has ethical implications that aren’t always obvious. Some of these can be seen in articles like UX Design Ethics: Dealing with Dark Patterns and Designer Bias and How to Provide an Honest and Ethical User Experience. Some issues, like that of serving users who are disabled or from a different background than the designer, require thorough user research. They won’t come up by themselves, so designers cannot assume their experience is like the end user’s.
Designing with the user in mind can be an uphill battle, but leaves you with a clear conscience and will in most cases benefit the company in the long run. If the business model is built on deceiving customers and can’t survive without that, then do we really want that business preying on the people of the world? Sooner or later, no matter how big it gets, the people will turn on them and go somewhere else or turn to litigation. Look at Microsoft, which while still powerful, is no longer the dominant company it used to be. The digital age is in its infancy and companies like Google and Amazon are not immune to failure within the next few decades, no matter how successful they are right now. Anything can change in the future, so let’s design for a better present, one without confusing agreements, invasions of privacy, and wastes of time.