A few weeks ago I met a guy at a workshop, and we started talking about women and fast cars. Naturally, after about two minutes we have arrived to user experience. He told me how his dream-job turned out to a nightmare-job. His boss cared for only one thing: conversions. At first, he fought back vigorously, but after a few days (of torture, one would assume) he bought a black hat, and ignored the crying hordes of the users. He did a few things that would make a mass murderer shiver.
Long story short, the conversions increased (both in percentage and value), his boss was happy, but the users were not. Sounds familiar? In the past 6 months 8 out of 10 ux professionals had to compromise user needs to please their boss. (The number comes from a rather small sample size of 30 UX professionals working in EU. One can only hope that the situation is better in the States.)
Black hat UX – The intentional act of creating suboptimal user experience. The most common black hat UX is ignoring issues discovered through user research in favor of business goals or internal agendas. So if you keep the confusing pricing structure despite user research showing that users hate it, you are wearing a black hat. (I will not show real world examples in this article because I don’t believe in “name and shame”.)
If you work in user experience or interested in switching to the user-centric side, you should avoid being a black hat UX expert. I will tell you why and how. If you are working with UXers this can be your reality check. If the agency or expert you work with wears the black hat, you might want to consider having a long discussion with them, or start looking for someone with a brighter hat (and mind).
Black hat UX?
I met Phil Pearce at the Superweek 2013 conference, where both of us were invited as speakers. His talk was about Black Hat Analyics, and it inspired me to write this blogpost… as expected, it took me 2 years to finish it.
The term “black hat” has its roots in western movies. Hat colours were used to distinguish the villains (wearing black hats) from the “good guys” or heroes (wearing white hats). This was especially helpful when black and white movies were played on small screen TVs.
With the dawn of the internet age, the term started to be used to describe those who perform unethical actions with computers. Those actions will always result in something that is undesirable for the users. Stealing money from their bank account is an obvious example. Black hat SEO seemingly tricks the search engine, but as a result, the users get poor search results.
User experience experts should be champions of the user. How can they wear the black hat? Unfortunately, in the past decade, I encountered many black hat UX “experts”. Now, how can one fight black hat?
Name and shame?
The most notable effort (so far) to fight black hat UX can be accredited to Harry Brignull, who created and curates Dark Patterns. Although I can’t agree with his solution “to name and shame sites” that use dark patterns (black hat UX design techniques), he managed to raise awareness of black hat UX for the first time.
“Name and shame” was not the solution fight black hat SEO or black hat analytic, and it did not work for black hat UX either. The site has not been updated recently (I checked in 8th of March 2015 and the most recent addition was from June 2013), and the list of updates shows that it lost momentum within a year after launch in 2010. I think that shaming something, even if it is a website, is never a good answer. You can’t answer negativity with negativity. On the long run only a positive solution could work.
Why Black Hat UX works? Or how alien the users are?
“Isolated from new knowledge, the healers had understood that their dreamsnakes were alien, but they had not been able to comprehend just how alien. […] But in all those passionate arguments, no one had been on the side of the truth.” (from Dreamsnake, a novel written by Vonda N. McIntyre)
Although you can trick users using black hat UX tricks, to increase certain numbers (like conversion rate), or decrease other numbers (shopping cart abandonment), this practice is not only unethical but hurts user experience and thus the company you are working for in the long run.
The only reason something like this can be even considered is because user-centric thinking is not part of the corporate culture. Users are considered “alien” by quite a few companies, and they seldom comprehend that the situation is more complex than “getting more cash from them”.
How to beat Black Hat UX?
We can’t out-hate black hat UX, but we should try to out-teach it. On a global scale, public events organised by UXPA, UXMNL and other similar entities help the industry tremendously.
As more and more universities will start user experience courses, the next generation of black hat UXers will have a very hard time selling their snake oil.
Remember the guy with the nightmare job from the first paragraph? I think communication could have solved the issue. (Giving notice to your boss is also a form of communication, but I would start with less extreme measures at first.)
What you can do is to have a discussion/meeting supported with user research (not your opinion versus theirs). I would call this “balancing user needs and business needs”. This is a lot easier if user centricity starts to get into the corporate culture.
3. Corporate culture
Make user-centricity part of the corporate culture! The hardest sounding solution can be easily achieved. One of our clients, AO.com invites everyone into a large meeting room on each Friday and they watch users use their website through videos, while they eat pizza. This is not only a great team-building event but through those remote UX videos everyone gets genuine user feedback, not only the UX team.
I think, that similar to SEO and Analytics, the number of black hat practitioners will dwindle as the industry matures. User experience is at the dawn of its golden age, and there is no place for black hat UX in that bright future. (Note to self: I should avoid clichés, like the plague.)
Will we ever beat black hat UX? What do you think? Am I missing something from the big picture, maybe one more way to beat it or the secret weapon? Please comment below.
Two ways that will help us fight “Black Hat” UX:
1. Because Marketers are waking up to the idea that experience = brand (rather than advertising campaign), I predict that they will come to the rescue. They’ll stamp on experiences that erode the brand, even if they have short term commercial benefit.
2. Disruptive offerings will undermine those companies that practice black hat UX with simpler customer propositions and improved experiences. Have you ever tried to buy a combined TV, phone and broadband bundle in the UK? I’d say that’s black hat pricing*. Compare that to Amazon or LoveFilm – what if they could extend transparent, simple pricing models to phone and TV?
3. (There are always three, never two). Regulators.
*Opinions are those of users, not my own.