Making a Murderer and the ‘evil’ in good design

Sam Court

In this guest post, user experience director Sam Court asks: is intent the only difference between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ design?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would’ve at least heard of Netflix’s ‘Making a Murderer’ series. If you’re anything like me, you watched as your Facebook feed lit-up with reactions to the show and then, two days later, you began watching it, rabidly, yourself.

Can a legal system that we assume has been well designed, in fact, be exploited by those with evil intentions?

The series goes way beyond a court case (or three) and brings into question the whole American justice system. In many ways the fate of Steven Avery, the main protagonist, seems similar to that of Adnan Syed from the first season of the Serial podcast. Whether or not you believe their stories, it’s clear that the justice system has failed them both. And in doing so, it also fails us, as citizens.

Steven Avery: Making a Murderer

Steven Avery: Making a Murderer

In both cases the police exploited asymmetries of information. They knew the rules, they made their judgements, and they gamed the system to guarantee the result they wanted. A means to an end… and by any means necessary. But does this make the police inherently evil or are they just doing their jobs?

As a digital marketer, these cases caused me to reflect on parallels with regard to ethics in the technology industry.Serial TV show

As some of you may remember, Microsoft got stung with an antitrust suit in 2001 for bundling Internet Explorer with their Windows operating system, thereby making it difficult for competitors such as Netscape and Opera to survive.

Like most businesses, Microsoft answers to its shareholders. When someone invests in Microsoft, they’re unlikely to want to participate in debates about the ethics of domination. They’ll just want a solid return on their investment.

Similarly, were the executives being evil in trying to ensure Microsoft’s products were successful? Or perhaps they were just designing effective solutions to complex commercial contexts?

In a more recent example, last year LinkedIn settled a suit for being too effective at designing a system. It paid $13m for using ‘Dark Patterns’ to trick users into expanding their professional networks. As a long-standing LinkedIn user I can’t remember anyone ever forcing me to use the website; I’m actually quite appreciative of the service it offers and the suggested connections it provides.

Sure, the suggestions have sometimes astounded me, walking that fine line between creepy and cool, but if nothing else, the insight is impressive. So should we really assume the company is trying to be evil? As I understand it, LinkedIn wins when I win. The bigger my LinkedIn network, the better career options I have, and the better its share price.

‘Dark Patterns’ is a design term that was coined by Harry Brignull back around 2010. It’s defined as “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills”.

At the DarkPatterns.org website there are great examples of seriously dodgy design practices. But what’s really interesting is that many of the techniques that inform these design decisions are similar to those being implemented by designers on a daily basis. Seemingly the only difference between good and bad design is nothing more than intent.Dark Patterns website

The domain of Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) has also long been ‘plagued’ with designers attempting to optimise rankings. As the field developed, designers became familiar with how the algorithms work and some would implement a range of ‘black hat’ techniques to ensure they win – techniques that have seen brands such as BMW blacklisted in the past.

Conversely, the industry celebrates those who can exploit “white hat” techniques to achieve exactly the same goals.

As designers at White, we use all the tools in our arsenal to solve our clients’ business problems. When we’re successful, we empathise effectively with our clients’ audiences, creating appropriate solutions and, as a result, their businesses profit.

But what happens when we’re too successful? Are our clients risking litigation? Maybe this is why Australian marketers are often so conservative. And perhaps this explains how they end up being ignorant to what their customers actually want.

The LinkedIn and Microsoft cases got me thinking: Is the real issue simply that their service and UX designers are just too damn good? Did they design systems that were too effective?

The example of the justice system in Making a Murderer can easily be equated with the dark patterns we sometimes observe in design.

I’d like to believe that the majority of cops are busy keeping society safe and locking-up the dangerous few. The difference between the good and bad cops is just ethics, and the same is true in the profession of design.

Sites such as DarkPatterns.org are important resources for calling out those that abuse the power of design. However, our job as designers is to constantly balance the demands of our clients’ businesses with the underlying needs of their customers.

If a behemoth such as Google can drop its guard, we as individual designers need to keep our focus to ensure we don’t step over the ethical divide of ‘doing good’ versus ‘doing evil’.

  • Sam Court is director of user experience at The White Agency.

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