Disrespectful Design, Part II

What can you do, as a builder, if your job seems to require to employ disrespectful design patterns?

What is Disrespectful Design

First, it’s worth rehashing what Disrespectful Design is. I think there are a few common dimensions:

  • It’s adversarial. It puts the needs of the product (or the company building the product) clearly ahead of the needs of users, and tries to get users to do something. This post about Reddit has a bunch of examples of that, but in general, you’ll find lots of adversarial designs around sign-up flows or invite flows in social products.
  • It caters to System 1 over System 2. It uses dark patterns that cater to people’s automatic minds, their instincts/emotions, over their reason and logic. Vanity metrics that appeal to the ego and make users feel good through short dopamine hits. Infinite feeds that keep users mindlessly scrolling without being aware of how much time has passed.
  • It favors shortterm gratification over longer term benefits. You might feel better after while or immediately after using the product, but it probably has some bad long-term effects.
  • It is paternalistic and often dishonest. It claims to know what’s best for users better than the users themselves. My all-time favorite is: “We track you and invade your privacy, so that when we show you ads, they’re more relevant to you!” but it’s generally more like “You’ll have a better experience if you do X, so we will trick you (not convince you) into doing X. You don’t know what’s best for you, we do.”

Not all products that have these characteristics constitute Disrespectful Design, and there’s a bit of I know it when I see it to it. For example, even products that help people improve over the long-term like fitness apps or meditation apps might employ some of these tools to help people meet their goals. But these apps won’t have all these characteristics.

Why it Happens

A combination of things have overlapped to encourage Disrespectful Design.

  • The proliferation of “free” products. As the saying goes, if the product is free, you are the product. Free products are often monetized using your attention, your data, and your actions, so they need to get as much of that as possible from you so they can show you more ads or try to get you to take some other action.
  • An overly “data-driven” culture. You can very easily A/B test your way into a very disrespectful product. You try something, it juices your metrics, so you do more of it. The data becomes a crutch, and often, the things that are more measurable are short-term, shallow metrics.
  • “Performance”-driven culture. “We’re a meritocracy. If you move the needle, you’ll get rewarded”. Put that together with a data-driven culture, and suddenly you have a lot of builders finding ways to juice short-term metrics so they can get that next promotion or that bonus.
  • Grow-at-all-costs mentality. No doubt that the venture-capital-backed start-up model has created a lot of success, but it does push companies to a “grow-at-all-costs”, “winner-takes-all” type of mentality, where the key metric is growth and everything else be damned.

What You Can Do

So as a builder, if you find yourself working on a product that employs or plans to employ disrespectful design, here is what you can do:

First, decide what you’re OK with. There’s a spectrum here. For me, making a call-to-action in a flow more prominent in a way that makes it easier for users to find is probably fine. Changing it so users mistakenly click on it? Probably not.

Then, try to quantify the damage. Sure, maybe the short-term metric you’re looking at improved, but take a more holistic view. Look at down-funnel metrics. Maybe that sleazy sign-up page converts more users at that stage, but does it create better-engaged users? Unfortunately, the answer is often yes, but not always. For example, apps like Quora and Reddit that block their mobile browser UIs (or make them crappy) as a way to entice users to download their app do piss off a lot of users, but ultimately, convert enough people to the (much more sticky) mobile app that the metrics make it look like it’s worth it.

Look at long-term metrics. Maybe across the funnel, disrespectful design works in the short-term. But long-term, are you building a healthy base of users? Long-term metrics are, unfortunately, really hard to test. By definition, you’d need to wait a long time to see the results of an A/B test. And, during that period, you have extra product and engineering complexity of having multiple active flows. Finally, in some products, it’s really hard to fully isolate effects between control and treatment populations for an A/B test (ie can you fully track an anonymous user over time / devices / locations? can you prevent effects on one population from leaking to the other population? etc).

Next, some negative effects of Disrespectful Design can’t be quantified, but they can be observed. A company that has a reputation for employing Disrespectful Design might have its ability to hire affected. For example, while Reddit definitely has a really talented team, you can’t look at a thread like this and argue that it’s ability to hire more talented people isn’t negatively affected. You can’t easily put a number on that effect, but if you believe that the people you hire are one of the key determinants of your success as a company, hiring brand is a crucial ingredient.

Finally, know when you’re ready to walk away. Life’s too short, your time and talent too valuable. If you’re not comfortable spending your time and energy on a product because of the way it’s being built, and you can’t change things, look elsewhere. It’s hard to walk away from a well-paying job at a well-known company, but it’s also hard to put a price on that feeling of putting your head down, at the end of a long day, and feeling proud of the work you’ve done.

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