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Kind Tricks That Lead to UX Treats: White Lies That Benefit Users



October 24, 2016

It’s raining out. The full first season of Stranger Things is queued up on Netflix. Your ultramarine blue “Super Soft Plush Fleece Blanket” is rolled up around you like the foil of an expertly wrapped burrito. Only one task remains: ordering a small black-olive-and-spinach pizza (don’t forget the Cinna Stix) from your friendly neighborhood Domino’s Pizza. You open a new tab in your browser and start composing a masterpiece of a pizza. Immediately after you click “Place Your Order,” the iconic “Pizza Tracker” comes into view, reassuring you of the greasy, cheesy bliss that resides in your near future.

Domino’s began offering their Pizza Tracker back in 2008, and it has only improved since. The tracker gives users a visual progress bar that keeps them updated on their order and offers fun features, such as the ability to change the visual theme of your tracker or to watch videos on the pizza-making process.

Domino's pizza tracker
Ordering a Hawaiian pizza? Perhaps change your Tracker theme to something more tropical.
pizza-making video
Learn the secrets of making the perfect crust by watching a video while you wait.

Bending the Space-Time Continuum

These small, simple features not only help personalize the user’s experience, but they act as diversions from the mundane activity of waiting for your pizza to arrive. These diversions play into the idea of perceived time versus real time. As Tal Mishaly writes:

The guiding principle is simple: time that passes while doing something is perceived as shorter than time that passes while waiting statically.

Playing with the idea of perceived time is, inherently, slightly deceptive. Yet, I would bet that most people would prefer to think they waited a shorter time than a longer time if given the choice. Even more, while the tracker’s progress is updated by real Domino’s employees, it can still be off due to various reasons. Herein lies the shadowy space in which user-experience (UX) “kind tricks” live: designs that are not malicious dark patterns, but slightly altered truths that work to improve the user’s experience.

In an article written by Dan Turner on the site A List Apart, Turner lays out eight heuristics that can help a designer decide if using a slightly deceptive pattern is ethically sound or not. Two of his heuristics especially stand out to me (though I do recommend reading through the full list):

  1. Provide relief from anxiety or tension.
  2. Move the user toward their desired outcome.

Domino’s Pizza Tracker meets both of these tenets by lessening the anxiety of waiting for a pizza by providing fun, distracting features, as well as helping the user understand when to expect the pizza (moving the user toward their desired outcome).

Creating a World of Limitless Wi-Fi

Facebook’s app also has a trick up its sleeve that improves its user experience with a small deviation from truth. Even when users do not have internet connection, they can still “post” statuses and comments on friend’s posts. Of course, these “posts” will not actually be uploaded until the user regains internet connection, but consider the situations when a lot of people use social media.

On my subway commutes in Chicago, I frequently look up and see people all around me opening their Facebook apps. Not all phones will have connection while underground, but Facebook makes it easy for the Wi-Fi–deprived commuters to still “post” their groundbreaking status or comment without having to experience the anxiety of seeing it not work. Facebook uses a pop-up banner that says “You can still post while offline” to cue the user into this functionality, though the user is slightly deceived that they are posting in real time.

Facebook offline posting alert
Facebook’s message that appears when the user is offline.

The Titillating Power of Anticipation

In another instance of “kind manipulation,” the often confusing process of software/account onboarding (the process of creating an account and becoming acquainted with the features) is elevated to a personal level. Onboarding inherently asks the user to input information, thus calling for time and energy. Still, there are some tricks on making the experience of onboarding rewarding.

While attending UX Camp this year in Chicago, I was fascinated by Sean Johnson’s talk on the critical importance of a successful onboarding experience and even more intrigued by an assumption he made. After answering onboarding questions like “What are your interests,” Sean was suspicious that user-generated content sites such as Pinterest and Quora actually load the user’s initial result feed slower than necessary, providing the user with the feeling that a unique, individual interface is being created for them.

After all the effort that the user has put forth in completing onboarding, seeing that their answers have been taken seriously and were not in vain sends a powerful message: You, the user, are so important to our brand, we’ve taken the time to create something special for you.

Now, perhaps this assumption is untrue and Pinterest does actually load as quickly as it can, but the idea brings up a great question.  

personalized feed creation on Quora
After selecting your interests, Quora communicates to the user they they are creating a special feed just for them. Fact or fiction?

Consider the holiday season. Despite the time and money it takes to gift wrap presents, it adds to the allure of the gift. Excited children will shake, compare, and anxiously observe every wrapped present that is laid out in front of them. It is this mystery and anticipation leading up to the unwrapping of gifts that heightens the importance of the moment into a fully immersive experience.

Returning to the user-generated content example, a well-designed delay could be used to inform the user that they are special and what they are about to experience is unique by using focused messaging and visuals. Stephen P. Anderson writes:

Think about our natural human perceptions — if something is fast, it must be easy.… Good things take time and are worth waiting for. So why load this data as quickly as possible? Why not introduce some artificial drama to heighten the appreciation of just how awesome this data is?
Pinterest board creation
Pinterest reiterates the interests the user previously selected when loading the user’s initial board, confirming that the system is listening to the user.

Honesty and transparency are extremely vital and necessary in creating trust with users to facilitate a successful user experience. Yet there are some instances where a slight manipulation of the truth could lead to an even better experience. In these cases, it is of the utmost importance for designers to question if their design decision is actually helping the user (not the business’ bottom line) and if it is ethical.

At the end of the day, we are here to support the user, and any deceptive practice that leads the user away from their original intent is wrong. But if through research and testing one finds that a little “white lie” helps improve the user’s experience and leads them more effectively to their goal, then, perhaps, a bit of trickiness isn’t so bad after all.

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