Can Interfaces be Evil?

Yesterday I wrote an unthoughtful post about an email I received from Slideshare. I analyzed the email as an interface and ended up calling it evil, pointing out that I wanted to find out more about something but had to commit to the invitation in order to do so. At the time, this frustrated the […]

Yesterday I wrote an unthoughtful post about an email I received from Slideshare. I analyzed the email as an interface and ended up calling it evil, pointing out that I wanted to find out more about something but had to commit to the invitation in order to do so. At the time, this frustrated the hell out of me. But it was a dumb post, because I know Jon and Rashmi of Slideshare and I know that they’re definitely not evil. (Of course, I was basically calling them evil in public…for which I apologized in an update to the post)

At the same time, on Twitter we were having a discussion about the Loopt debacle, in which the service sent out invitations to someone’s friends without their knowledge. We were asking…is this evil design or merely bad design?

Update: Loopt has changed their app in response to the concerns of their users. This is a great example of how to evolve products with users by listening to their feedback. Good on Loopt for acknowledging and fixing the issue.

Evil design would be when the designers intentionally deceived users by design. In other words, evil design is when designers(in this case the people making design decisions, not necessarily the coders or visual designers) know they aren’t being straight-up with users, and created the interface in order to keep it that way. There are many examples of this…one of which being the Facebook Beacon platform.

(as an aside, I’m sure I’ve made evil designs before, too…this isn’t evil as in Satan evil…it’s more like deception that creeps into an interface over time…and the designers know better but do it anyway)

Bad design would be when something unintentionally happens as a result of the design. This is very different. The designers simply didn’t know what would happen in all cases. I would suggest that most user frustration is caused by bad design…there are so many unintended consequences in the interfaces we make.

Nevertheless, I think there are a couple interesting points about the whole Slideshare affair.

  1. I was genuinely frustrated at the interface. I was as frustrated as I can be with people. I assumed that the interface was designed intentionally, and that the designers had made an explicit decision to put only one link there with the hope that people would be more likely to click on it. The frustration I had grew to a feeling of being manipulated…which is an even worse feeling. These feelings, of course, were silly.
  2. Most negative effects from interfaces are unintentional. The designers do not mean to frustrate you…they simply didn’t know it was happening. Always give them the benefit of the doubt. In this case, the feature is a *very* minor one, an invitation to join a group.
  3. People’s actions are completely colored by their current experiences. I would never have written the same post today, after the fact. In fact, this is the post I’m writing today, after the fact. So when people complain, they’re probably only complaining because they’re still in the moment. When the moment passes, they’ll think more clearly.
Published: July 16th, 2008

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