Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

1 December 2011

Evil Design

Clark @ 8:59 AM

In the mobile ideation session I ran today for some folks, the question came up about good and bad examples of design, and subsequent events reminded me of the topic of not just bad, but evil design. What I mean is design that is crafted to return maximal outcome to the designer, not just at the expense of the user, but even to the discomfort of the user or contrary to their intentions.  Let me cite a few examples.

First, while this has been improved somewhat, the kiosks that <my usual airline> uses to check in had a big yellow ‘continue’ button that you used to indicate you were ready to move on to the next screen. And the first couple of times in an instance it was innocuous, so you got used to using the button comfortably and automatically.  But then, you’d get the opportunity to spend some extra money – nicer seats, extra miles – and the default action, signaled by the big yellow button,was to spend the money.  This could be several hundred dollars! I fortunately didn’t get trapped (I try to get to the airport early), but I wonder how many rushing travelers inadvertently *did* manage to overspend.  I think such a design takes advantage of our cognitive architecture, falling into a pattern, in unconscionable ways.

Then, today, I was driving back to O’Hare airport from the aforementioned engagement. Following my GPS instructions and the signs, I followed the route to the airport.  Now, on the way out there was a required toll, and I drove through and paid the guy (since naturally I didn’t have a pass). The signs on the way back announcing tolls didn’t look noticeably different, and so I didn’t pay too much attention. Imagine my surprise, then, to find a toll payment arrangement requiring either a pass (which of course I didn’t have) or payment by coins.  Which I also didn’t have.  And the amount was more than the outbound fee, so even if I tried to use change, I likely wouldn’t have enough (who keeps lots of change around these days?).

The cameras no doubt caught me sitting there looking around, then calling for help, then furiously driving on after giving the camera a frustrated glare. Of course there’s a fine if you don’t pay, but there’s no way to pay except through a long URL that’d be hard to get exactly right.  You have seven days, which in one sense is nice, but might cause you to put it off and forget.  Worse, when you do go online, you’d have to known to record the license plate state and number to be able to pay!  And, of course, it’s highly likely in the rush of travel that you’d forget to do this.  This seems designed for the sheer purpose to get more fees.  For example, paying online is more expensive than paying the original fee. Why can they have a person outbound, and not inbound?  It’s capitalizing on expectations and putting you in circumstances that are likely to maximize your inability to pay in the initial instance.  What’s with that?

It gets worse, by the way. If you didn’t remember (and our brains aren’t good at rote memory) that the site is singular (Xtollway.com) and instead type Xtollways.com (a reasonable and even likely mistake), you end up at a site that looks like it can help, but instead seems to have sponsored ads and looks for clicks. If you weren’t paying attention, you could end up giving your credit card to the wrong site, and still not have paid the fine!  I’m surprised such a site can exist and not be shut down!

Our cognitive architecture has some flaws, and these can be exploited by the unscrupulous (c.f. commercial gambling).  It helps to be cognizant of it. It ranges from the designing interface, to ad campaigns, and the whole way companies conduct  business (see the Cluetrain Manifesto).

This is, BTW, at least part of the reason I don’t like gamification, as many game mechanics like adding points tap into human reactions in a way to get them to do things they might not otherwise do.  This *can* be good if it gets them to do things like lose excess weight or quit smoking, but I’d rather tap into intrinsic motivation instead.

While I’m a fan of good design, and there’s a continuum to bad design, I still prefer that to evil design.  How about you?


  1. Why is it that so many examples of this sort of thing seem to revolve around cars?

    Evil design runs rampant throughout anything to do with parking. Almost nothing regulating parking seems to have to do with actually ensuring that parking spaces are available for people who need them – which is presumably the point of any sort of parking restriction. Every bit of it seems streamlined for revenue collection. At our university here, when you get a parking ticket (and if you inadvisedly venture anywhere near the campus with a car, you WILL get a parking ticket) it has a blurb on the back saying that temporary permits can be purchased online. “Oh!” I think, imagining being able to go to a university site, sign in with my id, charge through to the university billing system, and print a temporary permit out on a laser printer; “how sensibly convenient!” Only the link on the ticket doesn’t work, and there apparently _is_ no way to generate a temporary permit online – this is apparently just a trap to catch people in a second ticket, thinking they now know how to get a permit! I could build the website that would generate these permits in maybe a week tops, and I’m no web designer, so it can’t be technical difficulty stopping them. And they’ve already had the _idea_ for doing it, or the blurb wouldn’t be on the ticket. But why would they want to help people avoid tickets? They get paid for giving people tickets.

    *grumble* *grumble*

    That said, I have to admit to a tiny little sliver of grudging admiration for evil design when I see it done particularly cleverly. A sliver in a storm of rage, perhaps, but it’s there nonetheless.

    Comment by Rob Moser — 1 December 2011 @ 10:24 AM

  2. TED talk by Seth Godin “This is Broken” – illustrates Evil Designs all around us. Thanks for this post! – @criticallearner

    Comment by David Glow — 8 December 2011 @ 12:25 PM

  3. I agree the system is often broken. But, I have another question, what is a mobile ideation session? Is it in real time or asynchronous?

    Just wondering, mobile ideation could help on many projects i work on. Never heard of it before.

    Comment by Vic Ward — 8 January 2012 @ 10:03 PM

  4. Mobile ideation are sessions where we brainstorm ideas about how we might use these devices for learning. It’s real time, not asynchronous (though ideally would be spread over time).

    Comment by Clark — 9 January 2012 @ 7:08 AM

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