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The Illusion of Design

by Circ Cular
12 min read
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The Descent

Being naturally predisposed to anxiety growing up in a toxic household, his talent for avoidance awarded him the role of a hermit lacking human interaction and a threat detection system running in overdrive.

An avid sucker for knowledge he was. Scrolling apps endlessly for hours got him hooked wanting to understand the existence of free will or whether Nikola Tesla really fell in love with a pigeon. There was no end to the forgetful conflicting opinions from the self-promoting higher-status authority, gossip, and irrelevant ads intentionally masked as answers courtesy of the pull-to-refresh circular loader.

Regaining focus he attended to his calendar where a bright red notification dot gripped his attention, alerting him of an upcoming trip that needed supplies. The primal color activated his amygdala alerting him of danger and the unexpected motion of the bubble appearing excreted pleasurable dopamine into his cortex.

Amazon scented his desperation and began clamoring using bolded words and salient colors to influence a sale, “Only 2 remaining!”. Knowing that he could lose out on a good deal, his elevated levels of anxiety tipped the persuasive scale and the items were hurriedly sent to checkout.

Booking lodging has always been a hurdle. Glancing through the listings, Airbnb noticed the selected dates were closing in and transformed his elevated levels of anxiety to that of stress by prompting how rare it was to find this listing available. Not wanting to lose out again, he eventually succumbed to the pressure as the pain of missing out inevitably outgrew the reward. There really is no end to the anxiety-ridden vortex [1].

The Evolution

Tech products, when designed correctly can enrich our lives, save us time, and make us more productive and social. Great products sit at the helm between great design and great engineering. However, whether products are designed with good intentions, in design-led companies or by designers, products yet find themselves riddled with unethical standards, illusive patterns, bias exploits, and undesirable behavioral consequences. Do these outcomes lie on the shoulders of the designers themselves? Are they the decision-makers who have the final say in what gets shipped?

This illusion of an imbalanced startup culture is based on the evolutionary strategy known as the hawk and dove game and the spread of memes. To be outnumbered means to be at a disadvantage and being a founding designer is an intimidating role as they lack the power [2] to influence decisions due to being misunderstood. Cultures are notoriously difficult to change once defined and it is well known that the first set of employees are the ones who define the culture of the company. This is how memes spread [3]. Companies are funded by the customer and it’s somewhat of a meme itself that designers, especially user researchers are generally paid less than engineers despite being much closer to customers in terms of needs and relationships.

The lack of design authority, flawed design education, leaders who prefer things over people, and the low barrier to entry into design collectively lead to a toxic world starving of compassion for the people who consume products designed to make this world a better place and make our lives better. We need a new set of design ethics, especially in the age of AI to protect those who are vulnerable to the plight of the attention economy, unintended social implications, institutions with low UX maturity, snail-paced policies, algorithmic bias, ignorant or incompetent cut-throat sociopathic leaders and company cultures designed without informed designers as well as a lack education in the biology of human behavior. Big tech is fully aware of these problems with their big budgets and large research teams however they are victims of conformity bias, loss aversion, VC pressure, and the myth of greed that money solves all ailments and is the root of all happiness [4].

When a new product is being developed, almost never is the design team asked to help in defining what the product should be. They’re only called in when the problem has already been defined. [5]
– Don Norman

Design is all about playing with mental shortcuts, also known as biases to prompt people into action. There are plenty of design principles based on these shortcuts but the line between right and wrong is thin. A shortcut gone right is defined as a heuristic whereas a shortcut gone wrong is referred to as a bias. These biases plague the world of design and they are used to elevate anxiety to rush people into mistakes, fear of missing out or losing applied effort, and priming without considering best interests. Education in psychology is not a prerequisite to being a designer and understanding the biology of human behavior is an integral component of designing for people. This literature is non-existent in modern design. Deceptive design patterns are present in organizations of all sizes, even ones that are design-led.

Illusive Design

There is no field more dangerous than design [6].

Illusive design – a term I coined originating from the side effects of capitalism, is a distorted reminder that uses deception or exploits mental shortcuts in an attempt to deplete our motivation through dopamine overstimulation, manipulate our emotions through social status play leading to cognitive distortions, modification of our worldview and throwing us out of allostasis, preventing us from realizing our legend.

On Dark Patterns

From the original author [7]:

Deceptive patterns (also known as “dark patterns”) are tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something.
– Dr. Harry Brignull

The definition of an illusive act and a deceptive one differ. Deception implies an instance to mislead whereas an illusive act is a distortion of the senses. The first argument is that a dark pattern is referred to as a deceptive interaction that exploits human vulnerability. To assume that a deceptive pattern is added intentionally without being part of the decision-making team is not right. A better term would be to say that the pattern is illusive so that we can avoid assuming ill intent when it could very well be pure ignorance. According to the raw data, some of the dark patterns found were not even deceptive. Researchers listed the many biases involved in analyzing over 4,000 sites and found the major offenders.

Many types of dark patterns operate by exploiting cognitive biases in users. In Section 5, we draw an explicit connection between each type of dark pattern we encounter and the cognitive biases it exploits. The biases we refer to in our findings are: (1) Anchoring Effect: The tendency of individuals to overly rely on an initial piece of information—the ‘anchor’—in future decisions. (2) Bandwagon Effect: The tendency of individuals to value something more because others seem to value it. (3) Default Effect: The tendency of individuals to stick with options that are assigned to them by default due to inertia. (4) Framing Effect: The tendency of individuals to reach different decisions from the same information depending on how it is presented. (5) Scarcity Bias: The tendency of individuals to place a higher value on things that are scarce. (6) Sunk Cost Fallacy: The tendency of individuals to continue an action if they have invested resources into it, even if that action might make them worse off. [8]

A dark pattern is rather a bias exploit in disguise. An excellent research paper by Princeton University investigating common design heuristics being used in everyday interfaces discovered that these heuristics led to common cognitive exploits through biases. We should call these so-called dark patterns out for what they really are, which are illusive exploitations of our biases.

Starting with Hanson and Kysar, numerous scholars have examined how companies abuse users’ cognitive limitations and biases for profit, a practice they call market manipulation [50]. For instance, studies have shown that users make different decisions from the same information based on how it is framed [80, 81], giving readily accessible information greater weight [79], and becoming susceptible to impulsively changing their decision the longer the reward from their decision is delayed [28]. Some argue that because users are not always capable of acting in their own best interests, some forms of ‘paternalism’—a term referring to the regulation or curation of the user’s options—may be acceptable [78]. However, determining the kinds of curation that are acceptable is less straightforward, particularly without documenting the practices that already exist.

Dark patterns focus solely on online interactions and not user-generated content, psychopathic algorithms, design methodologies, research processes, and tyrannical dictators who overrule low to mid-level designers who have no say in the way their product is built [9]. They do not take into account the subtle evolution of destructive habit-forming addictions over a continuum and everyday interactions outside the scope of the online world.

No account is taken into the biology of human behavior and its vulnerabilities including a triggered amygdala, beauty comparison, and the causes leading to unprecedented rates of anxiety, stress and depression. Shortcuts designed by the brain were useful in the past when our ancestors needed to preserve energy for survival. However, technology has accelerated our lives and our brains are lagging behind as 99% of human existence has been in nomadic tribes [10].

This tribal mentality invented social hierarchies and our brains needed to compare ourselves with others to regulate our emotions and social standing. In today’s modern world, this comparative trait is being exploited by algorithms leading to teenage girls tragically taking their lives. The design has the power to create wars in third-world countries and we have leaders who are fully aware that their interfaces are destroying lives but choose to turn a blind eye [11]. Social media is commonly compared to newspapers but this is incorrect. Chronically activating our stress response is what opens us up to nasty diseases by lowering our immune system. Reading newspapers does not activate our stress response 150 times a day as smartphones do. There is no dark pattern for this, this is so much more deeper and insidious. This is a pure and simple illusive design where interfaces are influenced mostly by greater forces outside the field of design.

Based on my research shown in the table, every interaction consists of a biological exploit proving that dark patterns do not cover the entire spectrum as they only account for 36% of illusive interactions. The research conducted by Princeton University analyzing over 11,000 websites did not pick this up either. Dark patterns are dangerous, but illusive design is deadly.

The way we interact online mimics how we interact in the real world and real-world interaction is about playing the iterative tit-for-tat game. The foundation of this strategy is built on trust. The notion that business is a dog-eat-dog world is a fallacy. Interaction is not a zero-sum game. Illusive design transcends interfaces and into every crevice of our lives and we need to change our ways.

The Awakening

The vortex was a toxic recursive cycle of reminders built using illusive design patterns to influence his behavior and prevent him from realizing his legend. Managing his levels of anxiety consisted of detoxifying from these synthetic experiences, helping to refill his depleted dopamine reservoir and restore the balance of his pain and pleasure circuitry. The constant play of dopamine and status was enough to wreak havoc on his sympathetic nervous system. One thing that did remain however was the invasive form of illusive design. Focusing on his breathing in the morning helped to regain focus and reduce his impulsive reactions. Having awareness mitigated the temptation to give power to those who did not respect his values and boundaries. Taking back control was liberation leading him to the first step on the path to realizing his legend.

Design Altruheuristics

Compassion

Compassion is built into the design as well as humans [12]. We are sensitized to resonating with someone else’s adversity. A research study showed that watching a person being poked with a needle activates our sensory cortex making us feel the pain of an imaged sensation [13].

Designers can not fall foul of their own cognitive distortions and jump to conclusions as we have to understand the root of the problem first to arrive at the correct solution. Empathy is a common trait assigned to a designer however we do have the privilege to act on our insights which is the core definition of compassion.

Arriving at the core root of the problem, however, is not enough as our brains are designed to conserve energy which gives rise to biases and distortions which Don Norman refers to as hidden motives. We design personas, empathy maps, and user stories and conduct interviews but do we stop to think about what vulnerabilities are we exploiting in our designs? Why is it that our processes require so many iterations and revisions? Are our customers giving us truthful feedback or is their agreeableness a result of the bias towards social desirability?

This task can be challenging enough, but even when the designers apparently succeed, they’re frequently puzzled and frustrated when others show little interest in adopting their solution. Often this is because they mistook professed motives for real motives, and thus solved the wrong problems. Savvy institution designers must therefore identify both the surface goals to which people give lip service and the hidden goals that people are also trying to achieve [14].

Understanding what designers do is a nontrivial task compared to coding. The barrier to entry and learning curve is low at the start and this generates a stereotype common throughout tech that design is easy [15], which is a fatal assumption. To get to the root of the problem, the design process needs to be iterative as human behavior is unpredictable, diverse, and riddled with biases. In fact, the first rule of usability is to not listen [16] to users and observe what they do. Asking users what they want or which mockup or prototype they prefer without using it first is wrong as they’ll only be able to provide feedback on the surface features. Taking an experience out of context exploits our bias toward framing. Moving fast entails cutting corners so we end up thinking we are our users and designing for ourselves [17]. Instead of getting customer feedback, we ask others on the same team who are familiar with the existing functionality leading us to fall for the consensus bias [18].

Good designers never start by trying to solve the problem given to them: they start by trying to understand what the real issues are. As a result, rather than converge upon a solution, they diverge, studying people and what they are trying to accomplish, generating idea after idea after idea. It drives managers crazy. Managers want to see progress: designers seem to be going backward when they are given a precise problem and instead of getting to work, they ignore it and generate new issues to consider, new directions to explore. And not just one, but many. What is going on? [19]
– Don Norman

Research is an integral component of design yet resources are lacking with low maturity and this poses a conflict with the notion of moving fast as it is a time-consuming process. Remote work has allowed us to distance ourselves from our users and avoid observing them in their natural environment where the product will be used. This process is referred to as applied ethnography, deriving from the field of anthropology and it’s time we bring it back.

References

  1. Experience, W.L. in R.-B.U. (n.d.). The Vortex: Why Users Feel Trapped in Their Devices. [online] Nielsen Norman Group. Available at: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/device-vortex/.
  2. www.youtube.com. (n.d.). Don Norman Says the Way We Design Today is Wrong! [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FMEzKQpTosY.
  3. Pinker, S. (1999). How the Mind Works. [online] W. W. Norton Company, p208. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/835623.How_the_Mind_Works [Accessed 20 May. 2022].
  4. Cular, C. (2023). Design is dead. [online] Circlo Blog. Available at: https://blog.circlo.com/design-is-dead/ [Accessed 9 Jul. 2023].
  5. [37].
  6. www.youtube.com. (n.d.). The Future of Design Education: A conversation with Don Norman. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OA6BAAgesQ&t=1154s [Accessed 9 Jul. 2023].
  7. Brignull, H. (2010). Deceptive Design – formerly darkpatterns.org. [online] www.deceptive.design. Available at: https://www.deceptive.design/.
  8. Mathur, A., Acar, G., Friedman, M.J., Lucherini, E., Mayer, J., Chetty, M. and Narayanan, A. (2019). Dark Patterns at Scale: Findings from a Crawl of 11K Shopping Websites. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 3(CSCW), pp.1–32. doi:https://doi.org/10.1145/3359183.
  9. [37].
  10. Harari, Y. (2011). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. [online] Vintage, p461. Available at: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/23692271-sapiens [Accessed 09 Jan. 2022].
  11. www.youtube.com. (n.d.). Live: Facebook Whistleblower Testifies at Senate Hearing | NBC News. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_IhWeVHxdXg&t=3974s [Accessed 22 May 2023].
post authorCirc Cular

Circ Cular, Circ is the humane design founder @circlo.com. Helping humanity conquer everyday illusions to design their best lives. Reinventing, humanizing, and intellectualizing design science using biology, philosophy & cognitive science.

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Ideas In Brief
  • The article examines how illusive design, driven by capitalism and cognitive biases, affects user behavior and emphasizes the necessity of ethical design practices and a deeper understanding of human behavior in the design field.

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