Design responsibly, not for addiction!

by Adam Felts

This post was written by Manasi Vaidya, a graduate student at MIT's Sloan School of Management and a student researcher at the MIT AgeLab.

While I lived in India, I observed that when any of my friends, family, or relatives visited the U.S., they always ended up spending at least a couple of days at the casinos in Las Vegas. The idea of going to the casino myself and playing there always intrigued me.

Finally, when I came to MIT for my graduate studies in 2021, I had the chance to visit one. But what I observed when I arrived may have been colored by my background. Being trained as a designer at MIT, I found myself focusing on the ways that the casino operators (or perhaps developers?) nudged and induced its players to sit at the machines and tables for longer.

First, I noticed the absence of seats from the time you enter the casino premises until you reach the actual area with the machines. The large window sills throughout the complex were studded with steel balls to prevent people from sitting on them, an example of a phenomenon known as “hostile design.”

If a player earns some money from a casino game off a bet she made in cash, the return is in the form of a paper barcode receipt that she needs to take to the cash counter in order to receive her reward. But if you decide to keep playing before making the exchange, you use the receipt to make your next bet. Here’s the tricky thing: our perception of money changes when we have a paper mentioning the amount of money we have: we start treating it less like real currency and keep wanting to put the receipt into another machine and try to increase the value. It takes us out of the world of “real” money and into the world of “casino” money.

For example: If I bet $100 and make an additional $30 on it, my receipt will say the balance is $130. If this was $130 in dollar bills, I would have used $50 of it to play in another game on another machine, and maybe saved the balance. But when this comes out of the machine in the form of a $130 balance receipt, the perception of money goes away and the user is tempted to feed the entire amount in the next machine.

Changing the perception of money by changing its medium is meant to manipulate a user’s behavior. This is called a ‘dark pattern’ in user experience design. In observing the various designs at the casino and evaluating what decisions might have been made behind the scenes during construction, I began to think about the dark patterns that exist in the design industry and what potential solutions might exist to encourage designing responsibly.

The Uses of IoT: Smart Homes and the Casino and Gambling Industries

IoT refers to the “Internet of Things”, which is essentially a network and combination of physical and virtual things. An IoT device (which could be an iPhone, a fancy thermostat, or a slot machine) can record and save the data that’s inputted into the device. This information can then be used to understand and learn from general usage patterns across users or create a report about a particular user’s behavior. In the world of the casino, this data can be used to maximize profits from the players by using their behavioral data. Similarly, a smartphone developer might take note of usage patterns on their devices, and employ that data to modify the design of their phones to make them more addictive.

IoT is also used widely in smart homes to create a platform that connects different devices to one another for creating comfortable home environments. These can benefit users of all ages, especially those with limited mobility as well as other physical restrictions. While the use cases of data collection among smart home technologies are assuredly not manipulative in the way that casinos are, they still raise ethical questions about how they collect user data and influence user behavior.

Responsible Design versus Designing for Addiction

Designing responsibly in today’s internet world is one of the most essential and ethical tasks a designer has. Interactions and interfaces that don’t trick the user or tend to harm or manipulate the user’s intentions are essential. The design of a machine is usually a project that has multiple stakeholders involved in it, which makes it harder to pinpoint or hold a single person responsible for the ethical decisions made regarding the machine.

M. Maximillian and H. Rikard (2020) conducted a qualitative study to understand the perspectives users have about dark patterns in web experiences, and concluded that users participating in this study looked down on businesses and held them responsible for incorporating such patterns purely for their benefit. They also expressed concerns about feeling helpless and not being able to avoid these dark patterns completely, as a majority of them relied on the services provided by such businesses.

For designers who may feel as if their labor takes place far away from the world of product manufacturing and sales, it might be hard to imagine that any of the work we do actually has an impact in the world. But it should not be a surprise when designs that are meant to trick a user’s intentions actually end up doing that. There can be no well-designed interaction or design that manipulates a user's behavior for the benefit of the company, regardless of how aesthetically pleasing it may be.

Points to remember for designing responsibly:

  1. Think!!! about various ways in which your design, platform, product, or feature could be used.
  2. Imagine the consequences a user could face if they make a mistake when navigating your design. If there are irreversible consequences at some instances, remember to add an additional layer that confirms the user understands what they are doing.
  3. Do not use dark patterns: Dark patterns will break the trust your users have towards your platform. Many users tolerate dark patterns because there are no alternatives to the service or product currently, but this may not always be true. Users will eventually discover dark patterns and jump to alternative platforms or products when they are available.
  4. Follow good data privacy practices: Do not collect information that your product or service does not need. If you do collect data about your users, ensure that they are aware about what is collected and how it is stored, as well as who has access to this stored data.
  5. Test for accessibility before launching: Make sure your platform, service, or product is inclusive and can be accessed by everyone. Keep minimum color contrast ratios and readability in mind when you design the aesthetics, and ensure that your platform is accessible through the keyboard if digital.
  6. Do not "confirmshame" people who unsubscribe: If someone has made the decision to voluntarily unsubscribe to your service, respect their opinion.

The next time you feel addicted to a product, service, or technology, consider what the creators of that product and service might have hoped to achieve. How well did they accomplish their goal?

Manasi Vaidya is a student researcher at the MIT AgeLab. She is pursuing the Health Systems Certificate at MIT Sloan School of Management in addition to the M.S. in Engineering and Management. Her research interests lie primarily in UX design - prior to MIT, she was a Senior UX Consultant at IBM.

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About the Author

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Adam Felts

Adam Felts is a researcher and writer at the MIT AgeLab. Currently he is involved in research on the experiences of family caregivers and the future of financial advice. He also manages the AgeLab blog and newsletter. He received his Master's in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Boston University in 2014 and his Master's of Theological Studies from Boston University in 2019.

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