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Adam Smith

Managing Director

When Do Persuasive CRO Techniques Become Unethical?

A careful balance we all need to take when designing an application or a website, is making sure we know how to draw the line between unethical and persuasive User Experience (UX). For some, there is no difference, for others, it’s a fine line to which we need to tread carefully. And for the user, it simply comes down to enjoying an honest experience.

So what are the main differences, if any? Isn’t it the job of a UX practitioner to persuade a user to complete a certain task? To buy a certain product? How much influence does a design have on a user’s free will? Surely the whole point of UX is to influence within the boundaries of free will, to create the optimum environment whereby the user can make a positive decision.

It should be easy to establish whether or not one is being forgivably persuasive or downright unethical in design - we should be helping the user to make an informed decision, working in favour of their personal goals, as opposed to creating an environment where the user makes a positive decision solely in favour of the site’s goal, where it may or may not necessarily be the most ‘informed’ choice. Is the tiny tick box to ‘automatically resubscribe’ helping the goal of the site’s objective rather than a convenient piece of UI for the user’s benefit? I’d say yes, and this is what I mean. Yet, for some reason, this is tolerated. If you were lucky enough to spot it and you didn’t want it, you’d simply untick and exclaim ‘you nearly got me there!’ - but what we should really do is vote with our close button. Why is open online trickery still tolerated?

But this is where it gets tricky. Any agency worth their salt understand the value of conversion optimisation - ensuring the highest number of visitors complete a positive action. No client brief favours a ‘well informed’ decision as a KPI. Clients come to agencies to create designs that do influence positively the free will of the user to suit the needs of the business.

Some would argue that UX cannot influence free will. If someone wants a service, they buy it, if someone doesn’t, then they won’t - no matter how well designed the site. If that was really the case, then there would be no UX industry, and arguably not even an advertising industry. Unfortunately (or fortunately depending on your angle), humans are subject to manipulation.

For me, psychological manipulation is fine, so long as the user understands what they’re doing, and nothing is intentionally hidden or misrepresented. That’s all above board and part of the game. Where it starts to get unethical, is when we intentionally guide the user away from an informed decision. Yet it still happens, in UX and customer experience as a whole. There will be others that disagree as everyone has a place on the spectrum, but I still think it’s interesting to see what is generally considered good practice vs damn right cheeky.

A Simple Pricing Experiment

A few blogs already exist on following experiment by The Economist and this is nothing here is new, but I wanted to explore it now to see where we think it falls within the ethical spectrum of persuasion.

Consider the options here when subscribing to The Economist..

With this option, 68% of users opted for the Web Only Subscription at $59, and 32% went for the Print and Web option for $125.

They then experimented by adding an additional, yet pointless product, for Print Only..

As you can see, both the Print, and the Print and Web subscriptions both cost $125. With this set up, 16% of people opted for the $59 web only subscription, but 84% now opted for the Print and Web subscription at $125.

So by adding a dummy product that simply frames the pricing and makes users think the combined Print and Web product is better value, we grow the number of people buying the more expensive product from 32% to 84%.

Is this unethical? Or just a well structured pricing strategy? While this may have one foot slightly in the grey area - it’s not actually doing anything underhand, as the user is still in complete control over their own decision - they still have all the information available to them and nothing is hidden or intentionally misrepresented, it’s just a case of some simple psychology to create the illusion of value.

So, What About Misrepresentation?

This is actually more common than we all think - the use of the scarcity model here makes users think they need to act quick. Value is attributed by humans if we think we’re getting something rare.

If this was indeed a completely made up random number, would this be unethical? We’re not making any false claims about the product, just pretending that there’s only a few left. However, this technique is highly effective. Scarcity creates a subconscious drive to take action now. When something is available in only limited supply, we automatically make an assumption that it is more valuable, which leads us to want it. Persuasive and unethical?

Balls Out Wrong

While the two previous examples may touch on some basic persuasion methods, the trick they play isn’t that harmful. The user won’t end up buying something they didn’t intend to, they just received a little shove in the right direction. I think UX practitioners are by and large OK with this sort of practice - there’s no real harm done at the end of the day.

But let’s take this example from in relation to signing up to the free trial..

Note the wording about choosing to stay. This gives the impression that the user makes a conscious effort and action to stay. The opposite is actually true, the user has to act to leave. The user has to engage again with the site at the end of the trial to cancel, else they will get charged. This text here has been carefully written to make it seem like they have to ‘opt in’ after 30 days. Technically all above board legally, and this will certainly have a positive impact on their conversion as people forget to opt out thinking they don’t have to - but this is intentionally misleading and therefore, in my opinion, unethical.

Respect Your Users

So the bottom line is, it’s fine to persuade, because that’s just the art of selling, but to intentionally sell something you know the user doesn’t really want is a mark of a bad business across the board - not just in UX. Be that a retail shop automatically including a warranty, or a phone company using clever wording to tie you into a gimpsuit of a contract, it’s a sign that they simply do not respect their customers.

Chasing only high conversion rates, and ignoring a quality customer experience is a sure-fire route to long term failure. It’s a shame that job satisfaction, or the want to provide a great service doesn’t carry more currency with people. If we only have short-term profits in mind, we become a faceless corporation. Happier customers create a longer term revenue stream, and I would have zero pride or job satisfaction in creating a high converting website if I had to use unethical or underhand methods to achieve it - It’s disrespectful to the user. As internet literacy grows, I hope this becomes universally intolerable, and not just an eye-rolling annoyance.