Design Gone Awry: When Autonomy Nudges Fail

DESIGNSupporting people’s sense of autonomy is a key principle for designing engaging experiences. Designers can sometimes nudge users into taking specific actions by painting those actions as being consistent with the user’s values or goals. For example, insurance advertisements often focus on how the product can protect loved ones if the buyer dies unexpectedly; this plays on a common deeply-held value of looking out for the family’s best interests. A lighter hearted but poorly executed version of this has lately been endemic on my travels through the web: Email sign-up light boxes that accuse the user of some undesirable quality if they don’t enter an email address.

The idea seems cute on the surface. Say something eye-catching and interesting in the request for a person’s email address. Continue to give them an option to opt-out, but don’t lose that last chance to make them think twice about it. The tactic can be mildly funny in many cases:Screenshot 2016-08-13 17.55.31

But when it gets applied with a heavy hand, it moves from being cute to annoying to even mildly insulting. Take these examples:

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I mean, yes, I am rejecting a free issue, but I’m also rejecting an annual subscription payment and all the extra junk mail that comes with getting magazines.

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You know me, bargain-hater.

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I get the distinct impression that all of the cool kids run wild and I am not part of their club.

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This one is my personal favorite, due to the source of the quote from Hannah Jewell of Buzzfeed. It came from her piece titled “15 Passive Aggressive Websites with Absolutely No Chill,” where she called out Jarvis as an offender.

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Now that is some clever quote work!

The underlying rationale behind this design tactic is solid. People are more likely to do something if they think it’s consistent with their values or will help them achieve a desired goal. But here the stakes are too small to successfully appeal to people’s values. I may care deeply about being responsible with my money, but the logic that follows has less to do with signing up for email coupon codes and more to do with smart budgeting, investing in high quality products that last, or pursuing training that enables me to make a better salary. As the tactic is applied most of the time, it’s a sloppy use of psychology that makes design worse instead of better.