Usability and Emotional Design

For the marketing types…tongue-in-cheek look at usability and marketing. Also a website at


Chris Nodder, Nielsen Norman Group

Our knowledge as usability practitioners can be used for evil as well as for good. As evil usability practitioners, our job is to create purposefully designed interfaces which make users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits us more than them. Let’s discuss some concepts that use basic behavioral traits and appeals to users’ emotions to lay the groundwork for evil design. Learn more and contribute your own examples at

Users are lazy. They follow the path of least resistance. When these paths are trampled through ornamental flower borders ( Desire lines) then you know the flowers were planted in the wrong place. It’s your job to make your desired outcome follow the path of least resistance.


  • point out on their homepage that they are not the true “free” credit report people (that would be but the text is away from the desire line – it’s in a visual dead spot and surrounded by much more attractive targets. So users can easily end up with a monthly subscription deducted from their credit card. Smart! Evil!

The desire to be more important or attractive than others – and in this day and age, also the desire not to look stupid. Think about the ability to manipulate people based on their fear of being less important, less attractive, or looking stupid. Easy.

  • Linkedin needs your data in order for the site to be useful. So they use language like “your profile is 30% complete” (oh dear!) and offer to search your contacts list for other linkedin members. If you think this is silly, explain the existance of sites such as, which provide a ranked list of the most linked-in individuals on the service.
  • Fear of looking stupid leads users to trust sites which display security certifications more than those which do not. However, Ben Edelman discovered that the sites displaying security certifications are actually significantly less trustworthy than those
    which forego certification. Way to go, evil sites!

An uncontrollable urge to possess something that someone else has, which you do not. The trick is in making people want the thing in the first place.

  • Apple. Smaller, lighter, smoother, sexier than the competition, so you just have to have one.
  • – because, when the rapture comes, you want to be even more smug than you are now

All we have to do is give people the reasons, and greed is motivation enough for them to carry through.

  • Amazon (among many other e-commerce sites) shows you a discounted price and calculates for you how much you save. They offer free shipping if you just slip one more thing into your cart. You can have it sent to you with a single click (no worrying about credit card numbers or any other stressful stuff). If there aren’t enough justifications right there, you can add it to your wish list for later.

Exessive thoughts or desires – often of a sexual nature. Well, of course sex sells (as long as it isn’t too blatant), but how else can we introduce lust? Anything that you can do to make people feel loved will endear them to you, and make them more prepared to do things for you.

  • Mini, on their USA site have a very slick and quite well implemented configurator that lets you design your own car. In the cold light of day, you’d never consider paying $150 for little wing mirror covers that have a union jack image on them. But once you start playing with the site, that and many other options just look right on the car, so you add them anyway. Because you are unlikely to have a good anchor point for these costs (see greed), and because they are relatively insignificant compared to the overall cost, lust can be an easy sell.

Uncontrolled feelings of hate or anger. How many times has that happened to you online? Your job is to channel your users’ feelings, control them, and bend them to your advantage. Normally, social structures prevent people from really demonstrating hate and anger. Anonymity and a feeling of belonging are both states which encourage behavior that individuals wouldn’t normally engage in. If you can create an anonymous group of individuals with similar interests, just sit back and watch the flame wars start!

  • Don’t label required fields on your registration form. Instead, return an error when people don’t fill one in. Now, they’ll be angry but in order to get past the form, they will be more likely to fill in all the fields! Bonus: They’ll ignore the fact that you rechecked the e-mail opt-in box.

Ah, good old overconsumption. Your users’ brains have consumed so many Web pages that now they ignore most of the content and make assumptions. You can make use of this assumption-driven behavior by making elements of your site behave differently than users will expect.

  • decided to repurpose a control type to serve ad revenue ends. Let’s see – oh yes, the hyperlink would be a good one: ubiquitous, familiar, and users are already trained to hover and click on them. Let’s turn those into advertisements link bubbles!

Reasons to attend the session

  • Free membership to the U4E henchperson’s organization (greed)
  • Comfy seats for half an hour, nothing better happening (sloth)
  • Learn something your peers won’t know (pride, envy)
  • That smug feeling of being part of the in-crowd (lust)
  • Practice the U4E secret sign (envy)


Usability for Evil (Evil By Design)

From a presentation at the Usability Professionals’ Association Conference, June 2009.

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