Talking about the Ethics of Persuasion

Stephen Anderson always has great thoughts and insights. In this UX Magazine article he shares his ideas on the ethics of persuasion.

Ethics has always been an important subject in our field. But since persuasion design has become popular people seem to talk about it more often. In most cases these thoughts don’t go far beyond a “I don’t want to design bad things.” Stephen Anderson managed to go a few steps further and share his thoughts in Towards an Ethics of Persuasion.

I’m often asked this question on the subject of ethics: “When is it okay (or not okay) to influence someone’s behavior?” Here’s my simple response: Don’t take on projects that you wouldn’t personally use yourself or recommend to your friends and family.” When you agree to work on a project, you make an ethical choice. The question of ethics begins with the clients you choose to take on, not the tactical design choices you make along the way.

There’s a hidden benefit to only taking on projects you believe in: it helps you avoid the more difficult question of, “How far do I go in influencing behavior?” Are seduction techniques like the ones I describe in my book ethical? This is a difficult question to answer.

Persuasion, and even control, are subjective things. What seduces one person might be laughable to someone else. This makes it difficult to argue that a particular tactic is right or wrong when the effectiveness is dependent on the person being influenced. If one person is influenced by the presence of testimonials on a page (an influence tactic known as social proof), and simply changing a word in the copy is enough to influence another person’s behavior, how can we say that one tactic is unethical but the other is not? Both of these intentional decisions influenced someone’s behavior. You might even argue that the person was being manipulated in both cases.

Read Stephen’s complete article Towards an Ethics of Persuasion.

Jeroen van Geel

Jeroen van Geel is founder/chief kahuna of Johnny Holland and the interaction director at Fabrique [brands, design & interaction], a Dutch multidisciplinary design agency. You can follow him on Twitter via @jeroenvangeel.

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