The Product Developer's Dilemma: Morality vs. Virality

How the seduction of clever user-flow-design affect the implied trust between a user and an experience designer—here are two examples of shady marketing tricks.

Signups with dualistic meaning checkboxes and the autocratic tick trick for newsletter subscriptions have been around for ages—the new breed of signup trickery are upon us.

For every advance there has been in protecting ourselves from pop-ups, spam, phishing, and other scamming schemes—there always seems to be new ways of tricking us. Luckily we as users have become more aware of these schemes and it takes more than the simple "Click here for something free" banner to lure us to the supposedly greener pastures that are behind them.

In that same vein, as we have matured as online users, the demand to keep sites simple yet very functional is not a differentiator anymore but an expectation we now have of all sites. Luckily this has also seen a lot of change since the heydays of alt texts and forms over multiple pageloads.

As we get increasingly better at helping users navigate the sites we create—this also becomes an area where we face an interesting segue—we are getting so good at it, that we are able to use the expected behavior through a user interface, to sometimes trick our users to do something they don't necessarily fully understand what is.

Here are two examples (there are many to pick from).

Rainmaker

Recently I signed up for Rainmaker.cc, a site that gathers and correlates information about my contacts from my different social networks and more—the value proposition is clear and so I signed up after reading a tweet about it. In the process of signing up, I could connect my social networks to allow Rainmaker to pull information about my contacts—I went through the motions connected first my facebook and linked accounts, the last one was twitter—there were some options that I could manage and a "continue" button at the bottom of the page.

The previous connections where a little bit different and I was clicking quickly on all the screens—quick enough it seems that I didn't notice the difference in the twitter setup—upon clicking continue, Rainmaker automatically sent a tweet on my behalf: "I just installed Rainmaker. Check it out at rainmaker.cc #Rainmaker"

In itself not a huge deal—in all fairness I would have noticed and not continued if I had paid a bit more attention—it just took me by surprise and I felt that the process had somehow tricked me, by changing a small detail on the last repetitive step in a longer process—I suddenly broadcasted something that I didn't feel like I had accepted should happen.

Profits35.co.uk

The other example was something I had not seen before and from a product person pov it was intriguing. I received a torn out newspaper article in the mail the other day—send in paper to my home address. The envelope was written in handwriting and so was the yellow post-it note that was attached to the newspaper article suggesting to me that I should check out some product related to small businesses. (The post-it note said: "I saw this in the Times and thought of you. This guy is brilliant. Have a look at his website. J").

Since the only person who ever sent me anything in the snail-mail (and read newspaper in print) is my dad and his name is Hans I suspected it was just a clever attempt of social engineering. A quick look at the font and a google look up confirmed it. In fact the Advertising Standards Authority in the U.K. has since banned that form of advertising (read more here).

However, I think these types of situations, deliberate or not, ask an important question—where is the line between morality and virality in a design?

- at what cost do we guide our users to their own sense of a goal - and when do we guide users to help our own goals as a website? My sense is that this question will become important as marketing/distribution gets more important and we see more and more services fight for users. From a User Experience point of view, the sense of cloaking the massive viral opportunity to broadcast over a users network can seem enticing to do, it's at a small cost for the user to have access to a site. But does such a muddled approach not hurt the relationship to the initial user, to a point where the risk of them not coming back or become anti-evangelists is to high? Let alone the philosophical question around an experience designers moral responsibility.

Stating the obvious—if you make a great product and have a great company narrative, users will take these as social objects and help preach it out to others—but what if you don't have any user—or at least enough—wouldn't you take a shortcut if you could?

Reprinted from Hello Henrik

Henrik Werdelin was named one of Fast Company's Most Creative People in Business. He is a partner at Prehype, and adviser at Sunstone Capital. Before that, CCO of Joost & VP of MTV Development—check his CV for more details. Follow him at twitter.com/werdelin.

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