Tips To Recognize, Understand, and Use “Evil” Design



I’m sure you know the feeling. Beyonce tickets are about to go on sale and you have your hand anxiously hovering over the mouse in hopes of clicking the “buy tickets” button at the opportune moment. You only have one chance because tickets will sell out in seconds. The clock strikes the hour and you’re off to the races.

Heart pounding, you type in the CAPTCHA hoping you don’t make a mistake because time is of the essence now. If you’re lucky enough to actually secure a pair of tickets and make it to the purchase screen there is still no relief in sight. Now the infamous countdown clock begins in the bottom corner of the screen, displaying the words “Time left to complete page”. The red numbers tick down as you vigorously enter in all your information only to hit the “purchase” button with a few seconds to spare. You’re basically Indiana Jones.

That feeling you just experienced while buying concert tickets is deliberate and calculated user experience design. While I have heard such practices referred to as “evil” design, I am not here to pass judgment on the ethicality of these design tactics, but rather to call attention to a few UX methods that are designed to elicit very specific feelings and actions from users.

Let’s explore the following methods in order to better recognize and understand why companies make specific design decisions and how those decisions affect the user’s experience with the product:

  • Urgency
  • Tom Sawyer Effect
  • Social Proof

1. Urgency

Remember that countdown clock from earlier? Ticketmaster will tell you that the purpose of the timer is to prevent customers from holding onto tickets that they do not intend to pay for. However, let’s take a look at this from the user perspective. The timer forces a sense of urgency on the user to make decisions quickly, sometimes at the expense of carefully checking her work. The thought here is that the user may stick with default settings and pre-set prices in order to complete the checkout in a more timely and even thoughtless manner. utilizes popup boxes in the bottom right-hand corner to elicit a similar feeling of urgency. The popups contain messages like “400 people are currently looking at hotels in this city” or “This hotel was booked 4 times in the last 24 hours.” It now feels like the hotels you’re interested in, are going fast and you must take action soon.

2. Tom Sawyer Effect

In addition to urgency, the Tom Sawyer effect is also at play on The Tom Sawyer effect is the notion that if something is difficult to attain, people will covet it more strongly. In the same way that young Tom tricked the neighborhood boys into whitewashing his fence, demonstrates a strong interest in their products to evoke a fear of missing out and a sense of competition for product obtainment.

3. Social Proof

Ticketmaster and demonstrate how final purchases are influenced, but before a user even gets to the “purchase” button, she must first select a product to buy.

Think about that time you bought a hairdryer on Amazon. Did you pick the one that was reviewed by 300 people but only had 1 out of 5 stars. Most likely not. But why? You don’t even know the people who reviewed it. This is the influence of social proof. Neilsen Norman Group defines social proof as, “People are guided by other people’s behavior, so we can represent the actions, beliefs, and advice of the crowd in a design to influence users.” While product reviews are in fact quite helpful to user decision-making, they are also a design tactic that companies utilize to influence user decisions.

Call this type if influential design what you will, it is still important to understand and recognize these tactics both as a consumer and as a designer. On one hand, it is important for you, as the user, to recognize such methods in order to make more informed and thoughtful purchases but on the other hand, it is also important as a designer to understand how you can influence a user’s decision making.

Remember that most sites and applications are designed for a purpose with specific goals in mind. User experience is all around us, and it is typically done in a thoughtful and goal-oriented manner.

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