Is All Fair in Love and Web Design?

Earlier this month, we posted an article on Smashing Magazine on using the "Seven Deadly Sins" to your own advantage in web design. Our argument garnered a mixed reaction - some readers found the concept novel and intriguing, while others railed against encouraging consumerist, "me" generation culture.

So which is it? Are we encouraging startups to market their products in innovative ways, or taking advantage of people's baser instincts for ill-gotten gains? Where do we draw the line between savvy marketing and dishonesty? What's "fair" in the world of web design and marketing?

First, we have to look at whether the behavior we're encouraging is really all that wrong to begin with.

Just how sinful is that sin?

The implication of the phrase "deadly sin" is certainly rather negative, but just how bad are these sins really? Would we eradicate them all from this world if we could?

Arguments against the "seven deadly sins" article assume the only legitimate decision is one based on cold calculation. Sure, maybe we'll make some life decisions based on lists of pros and cons, a set of tech specs, or spreadsheets of numbers.

But how often is that really the case? Whether we're falling in love or buying a gadget, our decisions often come down to visceral, gut reactions. We may try to legitimize them ex post facto with eloquent arguments and cold reasoning, but that doesn't change our true motivation.

In a perfect world, maybe none of us would care about products or services or entertainment that wasn't strictly necessary to survive, but for many of us, those little things are what make life worth living.

Appealing to the seven "sins" isn't about taking advantage of people or encouraging bad behavior: it's about appealing to their human qualities in a way that cold numbers can't.

What not to do

To answer our own rhetorical title, we don't believe that anything goes. There are plenty of examples of companies out there going too far - profiting off of users' desire for a good deal, altruism, or unfamiliarity with the web. So what do we think is going too far? Well, unfortunately the world is rife with them, but we have a few examples, most notable for how high-profile they are (and coming from entities that many people assume they can trust).

It ain't easy being green

Environmental impact of the products we buy is a topic people are reasonably concerned with, and its high visibility has led to a predictable an onslaught of products claiming to be "green," which, unlike "organic" or "grass-fed" has no legal definition: so companies can get away with marketing their run-of-the-mill product as "green" (and charging more for it). One shaving cream company even tried marketing their environmentally-friendly lack of chlorofluorocarbons - a compound that's been illegal since 1978.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

Word of mouth is everything when it comes to many products, whether virtual or actual. Review-centric sites like Amazon and Yelp, as well as search engines like Google, help propagate user opinions, whether good or bad, in record time.

Recently, an unscrupulous web retailer, DecorMyEyes, took the old adage about bad publicity to the extreme: taking advantage of the nature of Google's Page Rank, they realized the the worse they treated their customers (up to and including actual death threats), the more web chatter they'd generate, the higher they'd appear in Google's search results - where unsuspecting shoppers would take their high ranking as endorsement by Google, and start the cycle all over again. Google has since tweaked their algorithm to try to compensate for that negative publicity, but it's certainly more of an art than a science.

Questionable endorsements aren't limited to the internet, however: movie production studios, including Sony, have come under fire for dreaming up imaginary critics to give glowing endorsements of their films: one such nonexistent review praised Rob Schneider's comedy The Animal as "another winner!"

Something rotten in the state of online games

As the popularity of simple, online social games has boomed, Facebook has struggled to maintain an appropriate level of control over game developers' tactics, particularly Mafia Wars and -Ville producer Zynga, who makes one third of their massive revenue off third-party offers.

These offers ranged from legitimate Netflix trials to shady "IQ Test!" scams that continuously bill the user via their mobile subscription (no credit card required). This issue came to a head last year, when user outcry garnered enough attention to get many of the offers pulled.

It's a jungle out there

So, there's plenty of both good and bad advertising out there, and it can be difficult for consumers to spot the differences. But we sit on the other side of the fence, working on putting our products out there (hopefully with our best food forward). So where do we draw the line? Here's a few rules of thumb we like to keep in mind:

  • Don't mislead the customer or falsely portray your product
  • Don't do anything that would make the customer feel betrayed if they found out about it

It comes down to this: we design for people, and people aren't robots. People love products that appeal to emotion or "baser" instincts. But don't mislead people. That would be defeating the purpose, after all.

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It has 5 comments.

John Rooney (ZURB) says

Well said. I don't think anything goes either.

Jonathan (ZURB) says

We run into this a lot with clients actually - the concept of a bait and switch that works for the user. An example might be a free trial for a Web service that requires registration or payment in order to actually save anything. Did we mislead them with a free trial, or is that the qui pro quo of doing business online?

I think a lot of things are fair online - but not everything. Actively working against users to drive a business model is not just poor strategy, it's kind of a dick thing to do. I'd agree that misleading people is one of a few decent lines in the sand to respect when designing sites, or running a business.

Dave (ZURB) says

Alright, so this seems the most appropriate time and place for me to weigh in on the "green" marketing situation. I have become entirely jaded to the green marketing effort, which saddens me.

Why the cynicism? Could it be the downpour of empty promises that companies make on their product labels? Maybe it's the mountainous lack of government standards required to slap the "green" sticker on a product? Or could it just be that I'm tired of the ocean of companies treating green solutions as a trend, not a long-term change.

Impressive puns aside, I'm fairly upset with the sin of false "green" marketing.

Jeremy (ZURB) says

Tanya, you nailed it when you said decisions come down to visceral, gut reactions. We can rationalize and justify our decisions with facts and features and analytical arguments, but that doesn't drive our behavior.

To me understanding the "sins" and embracing them means being a student of human behavior. How do we think? React? Make decisions?

This isn't about manipulating people, it's about clicking with them on a deep level. I believe you have to be genuine in order to do that right.