When writers resist: How to fight unethical design

Back in 2013, Trevor McKendrick wanted to generate a bit of passive income. He thought he could cover his rent for about $600 a month. He looked at the top-ranked apps in the App Store, particularly those that sucked, and found an opportunity. Spanish Bible apps.

So he built a better Spanish Bible app, and launched it for around $5. Sales took off. He smashed his target of $600 a month — and started bringing in $6K a month.

So why did he feel so uncomfortable about it?

Because he’s an atheist.

This story first appeared in the podcast StartUp (head to minute 13:06 for the beginning of the story). Trevor told the show’s host, Alex Blumberg, why he felt so tortured about the whole thing:

“What if you sold Harry Potter books but you told people it was real? That they could cast spells? That they could heal their children? […] That’s really the situation I’m in, selling the Bible. I’m selling this thing that I believe is fiction, but other people are trying to use and mould their lives to, to fix large and small problems.”

He even received emails from people asking him to pray for sick loved ones, or — assuming he was a pastor — to interpret Bible verses. Something about that made him squirm. It didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel moral.

Selling with words

As much as we like to think we’re on track to become the next J.K. Rowling, copywriters are salespeople. It’s something we recognise (accompanied by a theatrical, mournful sigh). At the Copywriting Conference I attended last month, we were handed the results of an annual survey. One notable question: what is copywriting?

“The craft of persuasion”

“Writing that provokes action”

“Selling with words”

Writers come from different backgrounds. But we all share one core skill — empathy. The ability to see the bigger picture. The necessity to take on and balance different perspectives.

As writers we’re sometimes asked to do things that sends our moral compass spinning (not just talking about removing an oxford comma here). And writers do write bad things.

Take Amazon’s downgrade-from-Prime-to-avoid-paying-at-the-end-of-free-trial process. Like sweating and hacking your way through the Amazon itself, it’s a real slog. From the homepage, there are seven steps before your subscription is cancelled.

This kind of design is known as a roach motel, a type of dark pattern that makes it easy to get into a situation (signing up for Prime) but hard to get out. It’s morally questionable. So how do sensible, well-intentioned people end up planning, designing, writing, and programming this?

Don’t be evil

Who wants to be the bad guy? Companies that want to optimise the crap out of every interaction, without empathy, that’s who. In this kind of environment it’s natural to look at something and think “if we can change X% of people’s behaviour here, we can increase revenue by X%”

In the Amazon example above, someone looked at the part of the site where people opt out of paying (in product parlance a downgrade flow) and saw an opportunity: “What if we made it harder for people to click the button that cancels their Prime subscription?”

Whoever said that — an engineer, a product owner, a designer, a (gulp) writer — probably didn’t say it in that way. They probably said: “If we design a downgrade flow that allows for more opportunities to better communicate the benefits of Prime, we could help the user realise the cost of switching, help them to abandon the downgrade flow, and maintain contribution to MRR.”

We often think and speak in these terms to justify what we’re doing. We know the translation is “let’s make it hard for people to click a button because we want more money” but we’d rather convince ourselves that what we’re doing is best.

Oh, come off it, you might think. It’s not that bad.

Sure, it’s not that bad. It’s not illegal. But we work in companies that embrace certain values. Empathy, compassion, people before profit, social responsibility, customer first, customer obsessed, customer-centric, customer-led. And there’s sometimes a mismatch between those values and actions within the company because — while we’d like all the nice stuff — we’d also like to make money and grow fast thank you very much.

If you’re saying one thing and doing another you’re duplicitous. At least Dr. Evil has the decency of doing away with the pretence.

So if your company’s stated values haven’t changed, shouldn’t your actions reflect them?

Drawing lines

Jess Sand, UX and content strategist, has fought against requests she’s deemed unethical, or otherwise running counter to her own values. The argument she’s heard most is that it’s hard to know where to draw the line.

“I think it’s a legitimate dilemma but ultimately, if you don’t know where your line is drawn, then it’s very easy to excuse yourself from responsibility as soon as things get a little uncomfortable.”

Burying a “Delete account” button so people can’t find it? It’s not that bad. Tricking people to click a button because you know they click there out of habit? It’s not that bad. Just plain lying? It’s not that bad.

We’re all busy. In the thick of day-to-day tasks, it’s harder to hear our inner alarm bell.

We do hear it. But then we imagine how things would play out if we acted on it. Which goes a little something like this:

For a start, I’d have to push back with him. And that’s terrifying. We’d be back and forth for days. It would be draining. God, then there’s his team. They adore him. They’d hate me because I’d be just another blocker. And do I really have time for all this? There’s that other urgent project I should be focussing on. And why’s this even on me anyway? Shouldn’t the head of product be looking out for this kind of thing? Whatever, I’ll just do it.

Nobody wants to be the blocker. Photo by Chris Yang on Unsplash

Fighting back is an effort. You need resilience. Here’s Jess again, describing that fight after being asked to do something she didn’t agree with:

“I was appalled, and argued vocally that it ran counter to the company’s stated values and brand, that it wasn’t a best practice, and that it would be harmful to the product and brand overall. I called in UX designers and other product managers to try and support me. Ultimately, we won that battle. But I could’ve easily said “this hill isn’t worth dying on,” sucked it up, and done it. Happens every day in companies all over.”

Essentially it boils down to: is it really worth it?

How to push back

Depending on the company, flat-out refusing to do something because you feel it’s unethical could see you labelled as insubordinate — grounds for potential dismissal. That’s a consequence that affects some more than others. Those with savings, zero dependents, and skills that could easily be applied elsewhere have more room to maneuver.

Here’s Jess again:

“Someone juggling three jobs to keep their kids fed can’t really risk talking back to their manager […] those of us who have the privilege of fewer consequences have an even greater responsibility to speak out, specifically to bear the brunt of that risk on behalf of those who can’t.”

So you decide to speak out. But how to go about it? Here are some ideas.

You’ll be in a better position to argue your case if you’ve already laid some groundwork. Raise awareness by calling out bad practice at other companies. There are hundreds of examples online. Again, dark patterns is a great place to start. You also have your own personal experience of ads, apps, websites, SaaS products, and so on. Name and shame every time you’re duped, lied to, forced, threatened, or thwarted. Elevate the issue in the minds of your colleagues so they apply the same moral standards to their interactions online.

It’s easier to influence someone’s decision if they’re hearing the same thing from everyone around them. At first, approach people individually. Test the water. Get the opinion of people you trust. But you should also talk to those close to the source of the request. Hearing something from your immediate peers often carries more weight. If it’s a product owner, talk to other product owners. If it’s a UX designer, talk to other UX designers.

This isn’t about going over someone’s head. You’re in a tug-of-war for the soul of the company. And you’ll need a variety of people in different roles to haul the rope over to the winning side.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Perhaps the most powerful way to push back against dodgy practices is by doing the opposite. Instead of defending your audience against bad experiences, create and launch remarkable ones.

Paul Campillo, brand storyteller and strategist at Typeform, told me his subscription to Sumo was due to end in September.

A month before, an account manager there sent him an email to remind him, and asked if there was anything he could do to help.

A week later, another email. A week later, a couple more.

Right up to the final day of his subscription, Paul received emails from the same account manager at Sumo, asking if he needed any help. Far from irritating Paul, it pleased him. His subscription wasn’t allowed to die and appear as just another red number on September’s balance sheet. The level of attention made him feel valued and special. Sumo delivered an incredible brand experience through some of the plainest emails ever sent.

If you actively seek to set the bar high, that becomes the default — and shady practices become even shadier in everyone else’s eyes.

Anchor your argument

The most frustrating piece of feedback I get about copy is “I don’t like it.” Not because I’m sensitive to critique, but because it lacks a reason.

Arguments need justification. The best justification for combating morally questionable acts? Your brand.

A brand, writes Guy Smith, is the sum of all touchpoints. If your touchpoints start to turn rotten — a pushy email here, a hidden button there — people will notice, and your brand will start to stink.

Here’s my colleague Paul again:

“Deliver value. Don’t extract it.”

Your brand or culture most likely has a set of values attached. Allow those values to guide your argument and anchor your position. Everyone you work with signed up to them, after all.

You are now leaving the comfort zone

Writers, designers, marketers — no matter how autonomous we are, we get tasks created by other people. Some of those tasks are designed to extract value from our audience rather than deliver it.

We’re busy. We get distracted. We’d rather just plow through the backlog and avoid conflict. But apathy and inaction allow things to build up. Just ask LinkedIn.

We need to step outside our comfort zone and challenge ethical abuses. Raise awareness, get backup, create better experiences, and anchor your argument to your brand. You might just make what’s beyond your comfort zone a bit more comfortable for everyone.

Thanks for reading. There’s more on my website.

A big thanks to Jess Sand and Paul Campillo for your contributions.

Content designer, short fiction dabbler, foreign language flirt. I do words and that at Shopify, Toronto.