Comments on Design, White Lies & Ethics

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  1. Fantastic article. With the user research figures, the average times look very quanty. I’ve got a feeling it was qual research though. How many users did you interview? And if you used think-aloud, didn’t the user’s choice to verbalise/not verbalise have a big effect on their time-taken?

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  2. This is an interesting article. It think it is ok to use the “route line” as long as it is communicated to the parties involved that routes may very. Have you continued working on this project? I would like to learn more about follow up tests and outcomes. Maybe interviewing groups or people that do rideshares could be of interest. With a taxi or Uber, since it is a paid service the time and expectation of getting to a place are pretty fixed. For a free service, there could be a lot of variables.

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  3. First thought was to simply dash the line, indicating that the route is tentative.

    Second thought was that if the user was expecting to see a line connecting the start and endpoints, why not draw a line and arrowhead from the start point directly to the endpoint?

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  4. That reminded me of something my waves professor have told us in the faculty of Engineering, Cairo univ.:
    When he helped inventing the microchip antennas, there was no more need for that long piece of plastic/antenna to be part of any mobile phones.. But the marketing team claimed that the users would think the phone is the reason why they are getting a weak or no signal in some places while it’s a network coverage problem, not a phone problem!

    So, they decided to sell two groups of models at the same time:
    1. A group with no long antennas at all.
    2. And a group with a fake antennas.

    The ones with no antennas struggled a lot in the market for some time as people were more comfortable with the long antennas (they didn’t know they were fake antennas) thinking they’ll get better network signal.

    I think it’s all related to the common conceptual model at that time. So, timing of the design is a very important factor in deciding to be honest or having to fake something to make the users more comfortable reaching their goals… without deceiving them and making them seeking other goals they wouldn’t have wanted if they realized everything well enough.

    Is it ethical for doctors to use the placebo effect?

    They use it to help some cases (like depression) which have no real cure by giving them blank pills and telling them that these pills are the most advanced and have 100% healing rates… And it usually works as their brains and bodies behave differently and kind of heal itself!

    I believe the designer’s “intention” is the primary factor in determining whether the design is ethical or not.

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  5. Muhammad, it’s unethical for a doctor to give a placebo when a more effective treatment is available (as is the case with depression - antidepressants aren’t all that effective on average, but they still beat placebo by enough that it would be unethical to substitute placebo for them without telling the patient). It would also be unethical to claim a 100% cure rate, since that would damage the trust of the much more than 0% of patients who would not recover. Having good intentions while doing harm does not make an action ethical.

    It seems to me that either of Michael’s suggestions would be as clear/honest as an “actual route may vary” note, and also more noticeable to the user.

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  6. It will be interesting to know if the users are still feeling the same way about the line once they got a ride and went on a different route than shown on the map. Knowing something is after all not the same as experiencing it.

    And what happens if you take the map out of the equation? No map, no line, no being sneaky, but another way of representing that same data.

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  7. Guys, you find me somewhat puzzled.

    On the one hand this is a great article and I’m still baffled by all the research behind the scenes. On the other hand, to me the “dark pattern” theme is really not about integrity at all, but more about “legible intent”.

    Let me clarify. So called “dark patterns” are not dark per se. It’s the designers’s intent that’s bent on doing either good or evil.

    Architects and designers who create product or urban furniture are confronted with the harshness of reality on a daily basis - kids choke on pen caps, skaters fall from handrails and break their neck.

    What is called “dark pattern” here, can also be called “foolproofness” in the brick and mortar world. And yes, foolproofness can also be used to sell you stuff you don’t want - candies at child-height right next where you queue up at the checkout desk, anyone?

    IMHO beyond all the tools and techniques, ergonomics and cognitive psychology, what is expected from a designer is their capacity to declare their intent and inform it into their production.

    Which eventually loops back neatly to what I love about this article: the adamantly clear 8 heuristics Dan describes in the end are the foundational groundwork through which you can make your intent cristal clear to the end-user.

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  8. Because you seem to quiet knowledgable and effective with product research, I have an odd question pertaining to pre-product-launch-research (yes I made that up) specifically speaking about the copy or wordage used in the product.

    For example, a landing page solely created to convert users into signing up for a service (as it should):

    Assuming the product is ‘foolproof’ itself, do you Dan (or anyone else reading this), find it more effective to launch a product with little to none research made to what exact copy should be written to ‘sell’ the product, and the next few weeks use that live product to research user experience, utilize web analytics and pivot accordingly?

    OR do you suggest delaying launch to research the perfect copy and launch a few weeks later? Launch then pivot or perfect then launch? that is the question.

    There is an obvious answer to this when it comes to the interface and design. But when copy can be adjusted quite effortlessly even late in the game, it makes me wonder…

    Any thoughts on this dumb and quiet useless question?

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  9. Dan,
    I’ve studied the matter of literal accuracy myself in the past, so the question resonated with me. I’ve determined that it’s often the case that a better service is provided to the user by being “familiar” than any pretense at being “perfectly accurate.” In my own work, I notice the phenomenon most often when wording explanations. The accurate explanation would typically read like legalese, verbal spaghetti that does more harm than good. You are trying to design a user interface, not write a contract for momentous obligations. By employing “the familiar” the user can “go directly and quickly to a place in their mind” and then perhaps meander around until they arrive at the exact mentality of your interface.

    It’s a fascinating, but somewhat off-topic question why the thin blue line is such a crutch… beyond its habitual appearance. I can only come up with its providing of “helpful redundancy.” By seeing a line, for instance with 3 or 4 turns, we have reinforcement—in 0.25 seconds—that we haven’t errantly asked to travel between cities.

    But more importantly I’d like to suggest that your ascribing of being ‘100 percent accurate’ by adding the blue line is highly subjective. To use argument by hyperbole, I could tell you that nothing (!) in the interface is accurate. The driver won’t make perfect 90-degree turns; the start time won’t be precisely 2:00 AM; the trip will not be the 2-inch duration shown on a phone; and the car certainly won’t see a blue stripe guiding the way. It is all abstraction. But fortunately humans are pretty good at un-abstracting. In other words, I don’t think there’s the slightest deception in the line, let alone poor ethics (which would require intent added on).

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  10. Great article and an interesting case.

    To the point of the article, truthfulness is a key to customer service. This is a service app. Being untruthful about the route could cause huge headaches for the company (on the backend of the ride). To be a leader in a category is to change minds. The expectations of the users have to be changed. That’s not something done easily and it won’t help in the long run to tell little white lies to customers.

    I have the same questions as Fanny. Is the momentary good feeling at the “reservation” confirmation worth the long-term disappointment of the ride not going as expected. With the quality of free and not for profit services in America, can we expect that people will be cool when it doesn’t act like what they know—or have heard about—already (e.g., Uber, Lyft, etc.)? Knowing the expectations for the service overall is good information to gather, if it hasn’t been already.

    My thought is that an ambiguous service should show an ambiguous route while still being truthful. Let the user decide if it’s a service he wants. Users should have enough information to make an honest choice for or against the service. The map line and disclaimer technically do that, but is that the most honest and forthcoming way to present it?

    As an example, people are content with airlines to only see the names of two destinations with a single line and arrow drawn between them. We all know that not every flight will go as planned, but we are content when the start and end points meet our expectations. Can that sort of non map-based, generic graphic be presented?

    Thanks again for the thoughtful article.

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  11. Out of curiosity, have you considered a single “as the crow flies” line from point A to B rather than calculating and displaying a route?

    Prima facie this satisfies the emotional need for a blue line connecting two points, and also satisfies the transparency issue of being upfront about the ambiguity of the actual route to be followed.

    Later development could introduce being able to define additional points in the route to provide more granular detail of the route. In this case, if there’s a high level of precision it is because it has been provided by the user as opposed to being second-guessed by a computer.

    Conceptually this then becomes more about defining flexible goals (going from a to b, possibly/preferably via c) that other people can assist with, rather than defining the means (travel along road x, turn at corner y, etc until you reach destination z).

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  12. This is an interesting article. More info from

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  13. Ok, so I really enjoyed this article. But I find something troubling. The concept of affordance seems to be built on addressing an emotional need with a patterned that’s not necessarily suited but familiar. (expectation: elevator door closing, need: control over the closing time, pattern: buttons control elevators, solution: button that closes elevator door) But would it be better to radically introduce a different pattern instead of conforming and reinforcing to an ill-suited one? (instead of a button adding a door closing timer; instead of a map at the confirmation step providing only start and end address). Are the white lies necessary only because they use an wrong pattern to solve the problem? Maybe they are needed to compensate for a mismatch between the problem and a familiar but inefficient solution.

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  14. designing is best part of website to represent in front of any client. you should design proper with white lies. thanks you

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  15. It’s this level of consideration that I admire from UX designers.

    Although I don’t personally see this as an ‘ethical dilemma’ I do think I may perceive the app as slightly less trusting through a lack of consideration if I saw an incorrect route.

    A combination of the suggestions from the guys in the comments above would completely reassure me. They are - Dashed line with a note to say *route may vary.

    Great work, it must be have been a fun project.

    UI Designer @ Blockety HTML Templates

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  16. Excellent questions and thinking. IMHO, even well-intentioned design that doesn’t reflect the truth can backfire. You never know when someone really needs to close the doors on an elevator and will rely on the design working as advertised.

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  17. Sorry, commenting is closed on this article.