No, an exploitative product is not "great"
By Mark Hurst • February 4, 2021

Last week's column, Why I'm losing faith in UX, struck a nerve. A swarm of replies came back via email, Twitter, and LinkedIn, as well as comments on tech-news sites HackerNews and, a clever three-line summary from UCLA professor Xiang 'Anthony' Chen, and - today - a thoughtful thread from a VP at TrendMicro.

Here's what I learned from the feedback I received: A lot of people are losing faith in UX. Reactions I got were almost unanimously in agreement: "You are absolutely right!" "SPOT ON!" "You read my mind." "Preach! I salute you for speaking an uncomfortable truth." Below I'll share two of the replies at length, but these quotes give a good sense of the feedback. People are feeling intense pressure, driven by the business model of their employer, to pervert the goal of UX - from helping and enabling users, to deceiving and exploiting them.

Amidst this torrent of agreement from UX professionals - including one or two who report being fired for refusing to engage in corrupt practices - came a rebuttal from consultant and author Scott Berkun. Berkun encourages his readers to "put faith in UX design" with an explanation that, I believe, further justifies the frustration expressed in my readers' emails. Here it is (the bold text is Berkun's):

You can have a great user experience in one sense and be exploited, or exploit others, at the same time (e.g. Uber, Facebook or even heroin).

I had to read that sentence a couple of times to make sure I was getting it right. Expressing the market-oriented worldview of so many venture capitalists and tech CEOs, Berkun emphatically states that "a great user experience" can still "exploit others." Like "heroin."

And thus does Berkun perfectly state my case: the tech industry now considers exploitation, even to the level of drug addiction, totally acceptable and consistent with a "great experience." No wonder so many UX professionals are despairing. They get off work after a long day of actively, intentionally exploiting users, and wonder: is this what I want to spend my career doing?

Perhaps to rationalize his argument, Berkun points back to the customer. "Amazon customers are happy even with bad UX," he writes, "despite the design and ethical issues" that I often bring up. Amazon ranks highly in surveys of most-respected brands, and customers continue to order from Amazon. In other words, if Amazon is so bad, why is it still popular?

Let me answer that with a recent news item: did you see that Amazon was caught stealing tips from its drivers? From the FTC filing (emphasis mine):

Amazon recruited delivery drivers (and, possibly, attracted customers) by promising that drivers would collect all the tips awarded them by Amazon customers. At a certain point, it decided to divert thirty percent of those tips from drivers to the company to subsidize the amounts it had committed to paying its drivers. . . . Amazon then went to great lengths to ensure that no one would figure out what it was doing . . .

Now comes the key question. Was it a "great experience" when Amazon stole (and I do mean stole) 30% of the tips intended for its gig-worker drivers? Of course not. If more Amazon customers knew of the criminality that fuels their "everything store," they might be more inclined to shop elsewhere - if, indeed, any alternatives still exist by then. But customers are largely unaware of Amazon's model, as they are instead drenched in PR hype, like the excited stories this week about Amazon's new Helix boondoggle in DC. (It's no doubt paid for in part by those stolen tips, as Stacy Mitchell points out.)

I'm surprised that I even have to state this, but on behalf of the dozens of UX professionals who wrote me in the past week: No, an exploitative product is not "great." It's not even close. It's not halfway great, not kiiinda sorrrrta great. There's no room for maneuvering here. If you're exploiting people, you're not doing something great. If you're stealing tips from drivers in order to drive down costs for customers, you're acting shamefully and despicably, even if customers - whom you have kept in the dark about the theft - remain enthusiastic. What's more, the leaders in charge of the theft should probably be in prison.

What if, to Berkun's point, customers are so addicted - to heroin, say - that they keep coming back for more? Do high levels of engagement prove a product's goodness? This, also, is not an idle thought experiment but an actual news story this week: McKinsey Settles for $573 Million Over Role in Opioid Crisis. McKinsey, the global consulting firm, advised Purdue Pharma for years on how to "turbocharge" its sales of addictive opioids. And they succeeded wildly: Purdue's products addicted millions, contributing to the deaths of over 450,000 Americans and the rupture of countless families and communities. So was this... a great experience?

At the risk of repeating myself, let me state: A good user experience - let alone a great one - can't be exploitative. And that doesn't change when something gets popular. Millions of Americans unwittingly using a criminal ecommerce service does not erase the criminality. Millions of Americans' addiction to opioids does not make opioids any less harmful. When we worship popularity, or money - and in this economy they're practically the same thing - we lose sight of an essential moral code. As I write in A simple tech ethic, it's not complicated.

Several of the emails I received last week ended with a difficult question: Where do we go from here? Many UX professionals out there have lost faith in their field, as it's flipped to user exploitation, and they wonder how they can continue their careers in such an environment. And I don't know the answer. On a small scale, we can switch to digital tools that don't exploit users, as I've listed on Good Reports. But that's not sufficient. We need to imagine, and then make real, a much broader vision for the future of tech.

For now, all I know is that whatever we do, we have to hold onto the beliefs that got us into this work in the first place. At the very least, let's never allow ourselves to think that exploitation can be "great."

(via Joan Cornellà)

Finally, as promised, below are two of the responses to last week's column. Quoted with the permission of the authors, both of whom asked to remain anonymous:

Respondent 1:

Thank you Mark for writing about the decline of UX. This has been something I have been feeling for a long time. When I got into UX (early 2000's), you could feel that the respect for this field was growing. When one applied for a UX position, it was common to find employers seeking professionals with an advanced degree. However, now one has to know how to create graphics and program interfaces - companies have forgotten that there is an essential role in between. Not that I believe a graduate degree is necessary, but there is no requirement for having even an interest in how to conduct effective research, knowing how to truly listen to customers, a background in analyzing data, or having an understanding of how people cognitively and perceptually take in information and to use all of this to design systems that help people. I remember in graduate school someone asked what is the difference between marketing and UX...and our director explained that UX is designing for the good...designing systems that help users complete a task truly help people. Whereas Marketing is essentially using the tools that we have learned and using it to get users to do something they didn't want or intend to do.

A part of this decline I believe is that UX output is not as concrete, so it is hard to truly understand what value we bring. In addition, I believe UX professionals should be (and should have been) doing a much better job in presenting our work alongside quantitative measures to serve as a counterpoint to straight financial measurements.

Respondent 2:


Great post. Couldn't agree with you more on this.

I kind of think the issues with UX have always been there and maybe I was just in denial or naive. I now think there are two sides (inside/outside) to the disillusionment: The marginalization of UX on the inside (in the company) and the exploitative effects of UX that show up on the "outside" (the customer/product experience). No surprise, the way things work on the inside lead to the way things show up on the outside.

Companies often headhunt UX leaders/talent with the promise/pretense that they are transforming to become customer-centric, outside-in, user friendly, etc. But once in the company, there isn't sufficient air cover or a safety net in the organization for real change. Product and technology functions have well-established organizations and leaders. UX, if lucky enough to have a VP, is likely under one of these areas... and UX is subject to those conflicting interests.

Another issue: Most UX debates and tradeoffs occur lower in the organization where the real work and critical decisions are being made. Day-to-day, the troops are motivated by measurable goals, most of which translate to financial objectives. This favors solutions that deliver results that are quick and easy to implement.

UX decisions that have an ethical component are particularly vulnerable because most ethical arguments are easily overruled by business/financial arguments at the lower levels of the business. Senior leadership (especially the CEO) are more likely to have skin in the game for ethical risks, so there's a better chance the ethical argument will have a receptive audience. However, in order for the C-Suite to be involved, the issue has to be escalated. This taxes the UX leader's political capital. They cannot afford to escalate too many of these kinds of issues.. so which is the right one to risk their reputation? After that, it's still a coin-toss whether the UX argument prevails.

I've concluded, sadly, that as long as there is growth at all costs, UX will be nothing more than a tool to that end. Business cultures dictate UX.

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Other links:

This Guardian article (Feb 3) states my point exactly (emphasis mine): "Bezos is a kind of managerial Mephistopheles for our time, who will guarantee you a life of worldly customer ecstasy as long as you avert your eyes from the iniquities being carried out in your name." (Thanks to Chris Gilliard for the pointer.)

• Amazon is also in the news this week because Jeff Bezos is handing over the CEO role to Andy Jassy. This thread by Alfred Ng, with a comment by Jake Laperruque (and another from past Techtonic guest Jack Poulson), all show Jassy's frankly irresponsible approach to facial recognition.

• I linked to it above, but really, see this CitationsPod thread on euphemisms for Amazon's stealing, as various media sources - including Bezos's own Washington Post - try not to use the "s" word.

The Coup We Are Not Talking About, by Shoshana Zuboff (NYT Op-Ed, Jan 29, 2021) is a must-read.

• My guest on Techtonic this week was Stanford professor Adrian Daub, author of What Tech Calls Thinking: An Inquiry Into the Intellectual Bedrock of Silicon Valley. See playlist, listen to the entire show (you can jump to the interview), or download the podcast.

• Remember when I wrote, back in September 2019, that mind-reading devices are coming from Facebook, Elon Musk, and others? Well... they're here. In monkeys.

• The last time one of my posts went viral was 2003, with The Google Glass feature no one is talking about. I like to think that, combined with other critics' writing, it began a backlash against Google Glass that eventually helped sink the product. And like the Google Glass column, "losing faith in UX" has been translated already: there's a Japanese version from ITnews.

• Fun stuff: this is completely ridiculous and I like it.

• If you're new here, read past columns.

Until next time,

- Mark Hurst
Read my non-toxic tech reviews at Good Reports
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Twitter: @markhurst

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