Friday, July 15, 2011

Manipulation or Win-Win?

I just finished reading Kristina Bjoran's Psychological Manipulation in eCommerce Design, and I do not share her conclusions. She starts out:
“Web designers and architects use an array of psychological tricks to manipulate users into specific behaviors. What can be learned from these tricks? And, more importantly, is it ethical?”
and then builds on this with examples; she ascribes pejoratives to each:
  • Free shipping on orders of $25 or more— “users are tricked into spending more”
  • Receipts e-mailed two days after purchase– “when negative feedback is necessary, it’s best (for the retailer) to postpone that feedback as long as possible. It’s a smart move, but also one that feels a bit, well, cunning.”
  • Limited time offers— “undoubtedly manipulative.”
And she ended with: “how do the craftsmen and women of user experience feel about such manipulation/design?”

Well, first we'd have to agree that it was indeed manipulation (manipulation not as in “I manipulated my software settings”— but as a judgment of unethical behavior, as in “I manipulated that sucker and he bought my snake oil”).

What is the litmus test of manipulation? What of the ethics of these?...
  • using a New York Times-ish design on your blog because you want to be taken seriously
  • giving your art to museums. Now you can say your art is in museums!
  • dressing well
  • coloring your hair/nails
  • wearing makeup, concealer, etc.
  • smiling when another facial expression might better reveal your thoughts
Each of these could be seen as manipulative— they all seek to influence opinion at a minimum, maybe even influence the actions of others. They could also be seen as putting-your-best-foot-forward, which should be topmost on everyone's personal priority list. So which is it?

I recently took advantage of Amazon's free shipping of orders of $25 or more. My immediate need was one item; shipping would have added 50% to the purchase. So I looked in my Amazon wish list (thank you Amazon for a wish list!) and saw two more items that I had been meaning to get but were of a lower priority. Added to my purchase; shipping waived! I had been planning on buying them all along and delayed buying them until I had enough items for free shipping. Kristina's hypothesis depends on the premise that the additional items purchased were not items that I ever really wanted, and that a free shipping option hastened my purchasing decisions rather than postponed them. To boot, one of the lower priority items was an educational book for me; hard to qualify that scenario as unethical given that my mind will be enriched from my purchase!

One could suspect that Amazon intended to “manipulate” me, but in and of itself, free shipping on orders over $25 is not unquestionably and undoubtedly “manipulation”. I am reminded of a quote from American artist Fairfield Porter, from a debate about whether it is arrogant to sign your paintings:
“If you are arrogant and you sign your paintings, then it is arrogant to sign your paintings and if you are not arrogant and you sign your paintings, then it is not arrogant to sign your paintings.”
“Manipulation” is a matter of intent. Did Amazon manipulate me, or did they create a win-win scenario by allowing me to gang my purchases together to save $4 shipping per item? Whether I perceive that scenario as manipulative or beneficial says more about me than them.

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