On manipulation

I work in the field of web design. Or ‘digital design’, or ‘UX’… whatever you’d like to call it, it means that I am paid to manipulate you. This manipulation generally has two goals:

And so we apply all the persuasion techniques we know (“Hurry, only 5 items left!”) and make active use of your cognitive biases, to make sure that you open your wallets and spend, spend, spend.

The problem lies therein that only a handful of people in web design seem to ask the ethics question: Where do we draw the line? Is it morally just to exploit your irrationalities and vulnerabilities? Isn’t it evil to purposefully make you addicted to our services (think: Facebook)?

Of course I have a responsibility in this myself, and in fact I have started such discussions in my own professional context. But as ethical behaviour usually limits a business’ potential for money making, these discussions are met with professionalism, but not enthusiasm.

This is really starting to wear me down, and partly why I am increasingly attracted to the field of architecture. Of course, architecture is full of manipulation as well. As architect Jan Gehl says:

“We manipulate the conditions of people’s lives […] We are manipulating every time we put down a stone.”

But there is a fundamental difference between the manipulating in web design and that in architecture:

In web design, design means ‘manipulating people for their money’. In architecture, design means ‘manipulating environments for people’s happiness’.

And I find the latter a much more attractive thought…