The Bottom Line. Note To Self on User Experience
Note To Self is a popular podcast on WNYC that focuses on “finding balance in the digital age.” The podcast’s host Manoush Zomorodi explores challenging topics like whether the internet is impacting our attention span or how we should think about posting pictures of our children online, and encourages listeners to wrestle with these issues alongside her.
As a User Experience Designer I’m excited to see this kind of thinking go mainstream. It often seems like very few people are discussing or mindfully considering the impact all of our devices and digital experiences have on our lives. It’s encouraging to me to see such a well produced podcast seriously tackling these issues.
A recent episode of the podcast hit close to home as Minoush visited the “usability lab” at Etsy to dig into the world of how user experience design works, looking into how and why UX engineers are employed by online companies. Manoush and Etsy’s UX team ran through tests of a few versions of the website, asking about Manoush’s feelings while shopping and trying to identify the factors that make the experience most pleasant for Manoush.
The usability team at Etsy puts Manoush into their lab and asks to her if there’s anything she needs to shop for. Manoush quickly settles on buying her husband a gift and begins searching the site. Manoush tries searching the current site and gets overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options presented to her. She then tries another version of the Etsy site with fewer options and more targeted options and finds it much more pleasant.
While this is without a doubt a usability test being conducted by UX professionals, Manoush quickly runs into a challenging issue: given how much easier the second version of the site was, she wonders if these UX folks are using “tricks” to get her to buy things. The rest of the episode goes back and forth on this issue, unfortunately conflating the entire profession of User Experience with the far-older profession of Getting People to Buy Things.
In the profession of User Experience, we are supposed to be Human Centered Designers, thinking about the people who will use the things we make (our “users”) and designing things that are good for them. This focus on the good of our user is paramount, and is put out in front of designing things that are good for the business or anything else. It is experience designed to give as much “good” to the person as possible.
In the profession of Getting People to Buy Things, this focus on the user isn’t there. The company bottom line is all there is, and optimizing company profit is the highest goal. Most companies realize they can’t outright abuse people for money - this impacts the bottom line negatively in the long run by generating bad PR or losing return customers - but many organizations come as close as they possibly can. Design within these organizations cannot be said to have the user in mind. It’s business-centered design; money-centered design. It is experience designed to extract as much value out of a person before moving on to the next.
In the practice of professional User Experience Design, it is widely understood that a “good” design must be good for both the user and the business. At Universal Mind most of our business is with companies making software applications, so very little of it is about “helping” customers buy things. An example of this is the Genos application we’ve helped build with Complete Genomics that helps people understand their genome and connect with genetic researchers. On Genos we’re able to use our UX best practices to make your DNA easy to understand. This sort of work is easy to enjoy from a moral perspective because there’s no expectation to sell something.
The team at Etsy doesn’t have it so easy - they have to take this issue head on and make difficult decisions every day about whether something is truly good for the person using their site, or just the best way to get them to spend money. How can professionals in those situations think through these issues?
One good place to start is choice and empowerment. To the extent that Etsy can help her (Manoush) fulfill that goal while respecting her as a person they are doing a fantastic job. Optimizing search and browsing to help her find products she’s likely to want are a great example of that - it’s a way that Etsy can help Manoush fulfill her goal and be respectful of her needs as a person for simplicity, beauty, and utility, and help her avoid being overwhelmed.
If Etsy starts trying to sell other things to Manoush then it gets tricky. Recommending that people who bought X also bought Y might actually be helpful - maybe you need a mounting bracket with that picture frame - but when you start selling totally different things you’re headed out of bounds. If Etsy were to ever purposefully manipulate Manoush into buying things she wouldn’t otherwise and clearly doesn’t need to accomplish her goal, then they’ve crossed the line.
The worst would be if Etsy were to purposefully use motivators like shame, fear (of missing out or otherwise), doubt, anxiety, etc. to sell to her, or use usability “dark patterns” (specifically frustrating work flows to prevent someone from doing something - like making it take 15 clicks to remove an item from your shopping cart or cancel an order, for example). Then they’ve gone to the dark side. A good UX designer should refuse to do these things. They will surely keep happening, but a good UX designer always has the freedom and agency to choose not to be a part of it, and should.
At the end of the podcast Manoush is skeptical and worries about the influence that designers might have on her. She is right to be skeptical, and I am glad that she is bringing this topic to light and encouraging others to be skeptical as well. The world is full of bad design, or designers working to optimize monetary value without respect for human dignity. Yet at the end of the episode is also seems like the team at Etsy isn’t in this second group - that, like most of the UX folks I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, they just want Manoush to enjoy using the thing they’ve made.