UX designer, co-host of the UX Podcast, author, coach and human being.
What happens when our business goals take over completely from user needs? We spoke with UX designer Per Axbom about practical approaches to what he calls “misusability“.
As designers, most of us want to make the world better in some way. Many of us chose this path because creating beautiful and useful things is how we give form to our values, and we wanted those values to have an impact. But what happens when our impact doesn’t match our good intentions, or worse, when our design does unexpected harm? How do we address it when it happens, and can we get better at preventing it in the future?
Per Axbom, UX designer, co-host of The UX Podcast, and author of the forthcoming book, Misusability: Navigating the Ethical Minefield of Digital Design, spoke with us about his decades of experiences as a designer, coach, and human being.
UX designer, co-host of the UX Podcast, author, coach and human being.
First of all, what is Misusability?
We used to argue in the late 90s that we needed to think about the user, but now we’re making people make decisions they didn’t want to make. At some point, we stopped talking about making it easy for users, and started talking about benefiting companies, but we’re still using the tools as if we’re there for users first.
I started calling this out a couple of years ago. I didn’t use the word “misusability” until more recently, but I was talking about how we were doing things that weren’t the original intent of usability. We’re not thinking about how people can get hurt by what we design.
A few years ago we started talking about how we needed to use business language to get companies to understand what we do, and doing this, we abandoned our own human perspective. We dropped our previous frame in the effort to explain it to ‘the other side’. We’re now using tools from usability to coerce users.
One common theme among UX:ers is that we want to make the world a better place by helping people, but that’s not what we’re doing anymore. We need to take that back and remember why we got into this profession.
Where does the impulse to do this come from, and why are you writing this right now? Was there a particular tipping point for you?
[In design,] we weren’t talking about it or considering ways to counter risk. Working with health services to build Sweden’s platform for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was the tipping point. I was forced to do risk analysis every month, and I hadn’t had to do this before.
And when I did that risk analysis I realised that a bad interface is not just a bad interface. The worst possible outcome we were thinking about, in this project, would be that the person dies. And who is accountable? If someone commits suicide, the doctor is responsible, but I could build a shitty system and never be held accountable. I thought about all the previous solutions I’d worked with, and maybe nobody was going to die, but someone could get burned out, or I was promoting addictive behaviour.
I realised I had abandoned completely why I got into usability because nobody was measuring who was getting hurt, only things that were easy to measure, like conversions, downloads, subscriptions, time on site – very inhuman metrics.
One big premise for UX is removing friction, removing obstacles so people can complete a task. But task completion isn’t the same as goal fulfilment; it’s very much around what the business wants you to do, and that’s shortsighted. Why are users wanting to perform that task? Does it help them reach their goal? That’s not the same much of the time, so making things easier and frictionless means that the user isn’t thinking about what they’re doing as they follow this path of least resistance toward what the business goal is. And in the meantime, they’re becoming worse decision makers because they don’t get to bring in their own value system, the UX just has them absorb ours.
For example, everyone is talking about ‘nudging’ as if it’s this fantastic thing. You have Richard Thaler, Nobel Prize-winning economist, who is seeing his work used as a playbook to manipulate and coerce people into buying products.
A nudge seems like an easy thing, a small thing that doesn’t affect people as much as a ‘push’. But what if we called it ‘coercion’ from the beginning? The intent isn’t for me to hurt anyone, but if you’re not looking for that, people will end up getting hurt anyway.
We haven’t talked about all the biases designers have. If you don’t know your own value system, how can you act on it? I start my ethics workshop with a self-assessment worksheet to help people understand whether they intend to act on their own value system. Ask yourself, am I prepared to fight for my cause? How do I feel about conflict? Am I really ready to apply my own values?
One way to use this in daily work is what I call “pre-scripting”, to think about how you would respond in different situations, whether they have actually happened, or could happen, so that you will be more likely and able to speak up when something does happen.
Imagination is a great tool, so think about, for example, how people might try to build dark patterns into something and then how you could speak about it with others, so when the time comes to fight for your values, you’ll be ready with clear and compelling ways to address the situation.
By etching small, photorealistic images of flies on the urinals at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, the cleaning manager managed to reduce the urinal spillage – and hence the cleaning cost – by 80 percent.
In design there are so many options, and the most important thing is to realise that there isn’t necessarily a tradeoff between the short- and long-term. Sometimes we move too fast and don’t think about the hundreds of solutions that could solve the same problem, ones that could address both the short-term business goal and the long-term need to put the customer first and maintain the reputation and trust.
Because that’s the damage, to reputation and trust, but it doesn’t usually come until after a while, when people start to feel tricked.
One hard thing to explain is that when you make a decision that’s unethical and it proves to be really profitable – but let’s say you just want to see if it works – it’s really difficult to go back on that decision. It’s difficult to tell someone else why you would do something more ethical when the thing you’re doing is making money.
Behavioural economist Dan Ariely talks about this “incrementalism“, that the most important thing to prevent is that first unethical decision because it can so often work financially. So you’ll make more of them. It’s easier to aim for 100% ethical because if you aim for 90%, soon you’ll be down at 60% because you won’t see the difference these seemingly small decisions make.
From a business sense, it doesn’t make sense to pursue something only in the short term.
Every time I talk to people they understand the problem, and when I started calling out the problem, people were agreeing. People recognise it and are feeling bad about it but they don’t know what to do.
What I want to do now is help with the “What do I do?” part. How can we act differently as designers?We got into this business to make a positive impact, and this doesn’t feel like that. We’re always talking about how we can make a positive impact, but we don’t talk about it in the workplace enough, and I want to help designers feel more comfortable being the person who starts that conversation in their company.
I also decided that I will publish the book in HTML for free because that’s aligned with my values, to get it to as many people as possible. It’s inspired by Brad Frost’s Atomic Design, which he pushed to GitHub. And it also means that I can link to specific sections of it because it’s online. If you buy it, you’re just paying for the ebook or printed copy – you’re paying for the production of it.
I worked on a particular payment flow. I wasn’t thinking about ethics at all. I was just known as a designer who could improve interfaces, and in this case, if I were thinking the way I’m thinking today? I would probably say “no” after the first meeting.