Structural dark patterns, plus Sophia Prater on Object-Oriented UX and other things worth your attention.
INFORMA(C)TION — June 13, 2021
Structural dark patterns, plus Sophia Prater on Object-Oriented UX and other things worth your attention.
Hello! I'm Jorge Arango and this is INFORMA(C)TION: a biweekly dose of big ideas for people who make digital things. If you like this email, please forward it to a friend. And if you're not subscribed, sign up here. Thanks for reading!
Digging in the sand
My son, digging in the sand in Half Moon Bay, CA.

Dark IA

Information architecture aims to make stuff easier to find and understand — implicitly, to empower users. The antithesis of IA isn’t an unwittingly disorganized system but one organized to inhibit understanding and deprive users of control. Think of such systems as “dark IA” — the structural equivalent of dark patterns in interaction design.

As more of our interactions move online, the structures of websites and apps have more influence than ever. We can easily nudge users towards particular choices by making them more prominent than others. We can use this power for good (e.g., helping people eat healthier) or for bad (e.g., addicting people to unnecessary services.)

Alas, choices aren’t always as clear. (And it’s worth noting that even in “clear” cases, we may not be the ultimate arbiters of “good.”) Often, lines are blurry. For example, some retailers tweak search results towards commercial goals. Is that right or wrong? It depends. Are customers still seeing relevant results? Will they benefit from the available options? Same with navigation: It’s easy to bury “undesirable” choices deep in menu structures.

I can imagine doing these things to benefit users, but I expect they’re most often done to disempower them. Given the potential for damage, and the relative longevity of structures, we should steer clear of architecting ethically fraught systems. So, it behooves us to choose wisely. But such decisions aren’t up to designers alone: stakeholders often have more sway. What to do?

In an article for Smashing Magazine, Paul Boag offers three compelling arguments to use when persuading stakeholders against using dark patterns:

  • Consumers can detect manipulation — and they have many choices
  • Social media amplifies consumers’ voices
  • In the long run, there’s a high cost to using dark patterns

All three arguments boil down to reframing the organization’s relationship with its customers, from exploitable marks to partners in a long-term relationship. As professional framers, designers play an important role in the shift.

Also, the eventual implications of structural “growth hacks” are often unclear to stakeholders. By making the possibilities tangible, designers can be insightful partners in helping organizations make choices that serve the business and its customers.

Instead of “fighting for users,” designers should aim for a more humane balance of the forces that tug projects in different directions. This requires that we think of ourselves as strategic partners — engaged with the organization’s goals and approaches — rather than as activists countering stakeholder directions.

These are essential discussions, and designers have much to contribute. But stakeholders won’t engage meaningfully if they see us as thorns in their side. Doing good work requires that we outgrow naive expectations of design’s role, towards becoming more effectual partners for change.

Worth Your Attention

  • What’s wrong with UX? Jesse James Garrett: “as a coach to UX leaders, I am having continual conversations with them about the direction of the field. And over and over again, the question I hear is: Where did we go wrong?”
  • Cognitive biases in design. Jon Yablonski: “Bias can creep into the design process when we aren’t diligent enough to identify and mitigate it upfront.”
  • Bias catalog. A collection that helps us “acknowledge the potential presence of biases and take steps to avoid and minimise their effects.” (H/t Edward Tufte)
  • Framers. My notes on a new book about how to adopt helpful models to make sense of our experiences.
  • AI and complex system design. From my blog: “The relationship between top-down constraints and bottom-up adaptability is a key area of focus as we move to create smarter, dynamic systems.”
  • Theory and practice. Bob Kasenchak on the difference between them when making taxonomies.
  • Information graphics. How diagrams can reveal your mind's “blind spots.” (H/t Denise Klarquist)
  • Dark patterns tip line. Consumer Reports’s new service for reporting UX abuses.
  • The IA of sand. Dave Hoffer’s intriguing personal project: “Sand is actually really interesting.”
  • The last illusion. Few things have a greater impact on the quality of your life — and the lives of people around you — than the models you adopt. Choose wisely.

The Informed Life with Sophia Prater

Episode 63 of The Informed Life podcast features an interview with UX design consultant Sophia Prater. Sophia evangelizes object-oriented UX, a methodology that helps teams tackle complex design challenges. In this conversation, we discuss OOUX and how it differs from other methodologies. (Bonus: Sophia also interviewed me for her OOUX podcast — listen to that show as well.)

The Informed Life episode 63: Sophia Prater on Object-Oriented UX

The Informed Life episode 63: Sophia Prater

Parting Thought

Aim to be an ethical facilitator rather than an oracle; not the casting vote but a catalyst, giving people new ways to think about and discuss ethics, and engineering the time and space for these conversations to happen.

— Cennydd Bowles, Future Ethics

Thanks for reading! 🙏
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