Evil UX: The Dark Side

Any Star Wars geek (even a recovering one such as myself) will tell you that the Light and Dark sides of ‘The Force’ arise from the same place and it’s up to the individual whether they become a Darth Vader or a Luke Skywalker. Presumably a corresponding preference for wearing either leather or bathrobes comes into it as well, but I digress…

UX is kind of like ‘The Force’; it’s often a force for good, but it can also be used for evil. By ‘evil’, I’m not talking here about mistakes; they can be frustrating but not terribly dangerous. I’m talking about the “hey let’s apply some psychology to manipulate our users and achieve an outcome that goes against their interest” kind of evil. The kind of design that utilises psychological tricks to confuse, disorient and annoy people into making bad decisions.

A New Villain: Darth Vending?

A recent experience with a vending machine proved to be a perfect example of what some lump in together with ‘persuasive design’ and others call Evil UX. Here in Sydney, Coca Cola Amatil has realised that the humble vending machine has something of a flaw; it’s too easy to identify, pay for and choose a single beverage product without any confusion and with no immediate repeat sale. In fact, the user journey is just that; identify, pay, select.

But what if something could be done to ‘encourage’ users to buy not just one, but multiple drinks in the same transaction? New vending machines appearing in railway and bus stations are designed to solve this ‘problem’.

Enter the new Coke machine with shiny touch-screen interface, replacing the tried and tested (but oh so terribly straightforward) push buttons. Now when a user wishes to buy a beverage, they are confronted with a range of options which they have to scroll through. The simple identify, pay, select path is replaced by one that forces the user to find the same product they can see behind the glass, but can’t seem to find easily on screen.

And here’s the kicker; all of the single drinks are at the very bottom of the screen, which is annoyingly slow to respond and below several pages of multi-drink offerings. The multi-drink deals seem like a great idea until you realise that the margin on fizzy sugar water is huge anyway. Add to that the time pressures inherent in buying a drink in a train station (is that my train about to leave?) and the annoyance factor of not being able to immediately choose the product you want and you have a user who will likely stab their finger on the first thing that remotely looks like something wet in a bottle.

Remember; replacing a perfectly functional and robust user path and interface with one that was sub-optimal to the user was a deliberate design decision. That’s the essence of Evil UX.

Getting Touchy at McDonalds

You can find another example at McDonalds. The touch screen interfaces in their Australian stores used to list beverages and sides in order of size: small, medium, and large from left to right. This worked well and was classic interface design, because we tend to think progressively from left to right. We’ve also been trained by other interfaces and ‘know’ where things should be.

For the past few months, my own research (strictly for the sake of science of course!) has revealed that the order has been quietly mixed up, with Large, Small and Medium in completely different spots. Now when you go to hit “Small” on the left, you find that the “Large” serving is in its place. It seems like a tiny thing, but given the almost automatic nature of ours interactions with technology, it’s actually very hard to break the ‘left=small, right=big’ dichotomy. I was by no means alone; many other customers were and continue to, make the same ‘mistake’. By the time you’ve realised your error, the item is already in the cart and it seems like a big hassle to negotiate the Cancel function (which forces you to backtrack and re-select the beverage all over again) to remove it. No big deal right? Well, a lot of little ‘no big deals’ add up to major margins.

“U(X) were supposed to be the chosen one!” – Obi Wan Kenobi

Now, don’t get me wrong; the job of the business is to sell product and make profit and using psychology is nothing new for marketers. Having said that, Evil UX is the technological equivalent of a man in a polyester suit selling imaginary drywall; it’s simply dishonest.*

The purpose of UX is revealed by the first letter; it’s about the user. Whichever way you look at it, there’s a very fine line between persuasion and manipulation and the ethical interface designer needs to think whether a product that requires manipulation in order to sell is something they need to help peddle.

Dark Patterns website

*If you or a loved ones wears polyester suits or sells drywall I sincerely apologise and in no way wish to represent that they are dishonest. For more examples of Evil UX, check out this great site called Dark Patterns (above)

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