Usability for Evil

A.K.A. preying on peoples emotions for your own benefit

Don’t get fooled again by following some of these enlightening glimpses into how web sites try to trick you into getting you signed up for a trial or buying a product from them.

We’ve all experienced it at some point; the sneaking suspicion that those we’ve chosen to trust may not be entirely worthy.

Here’s some pointers to how sites get your information based on a number of emotional and social factors:


Users are lazy. They follow the path of least resistance. When these paths are trampled through ornamental flower borders (”Desire lines”) then you know the flowers were planted in the wrong place.

It’s your job to make your desired outcome follow the path of least resistance.


The desire to be more important or attractive than others – and in this day and age, also the desire not to look stupid. Think fear.

Think about the ability to manipulate people based on their fear of being less important, less attractive, or looking stupid. Easy.

  • Linkedin needs your data in order for the site to be useful. So they use language like “your profile is 30% complete” (oh dear!) and offer to search your contacts list for other linkedin members. If you think this is silly, explain the existance of sites such as, which provide a ranked list of the most linked-in individuals on the service.
  • Fear of looking stupid leads users to trust sites which display security certifications more than those which do not. However, Ben Edelman discovered that the sites displaying security certifications are actually significantly less trustworthy than those which forego certification. Way to go, evil sites!
  • Southwest Airlines have a boarding process which rewards early checkin and being at the gate on time – you don’t get an assigned seat, you get an assigned boarding order (and then choose your own seat). Fear of having the worst seat on the plane means that people arrive at the gate early. Southwest is the only profitable US airline at the moment.


An uncontrollable urge to possess something that someone else has, which you do not. The trick is in making people want the thing in the first place.

  • Apple. Smaller, lighter, smoother, sexier than the competition, so you just have to have one.
  • Airline mileage rewards – you too can be “Elite” and get that extra five inches of legroom if you just slug it out in cattle class for another fifteen trips…
  • – because, when the rapture comes, you want to be even more smug than you are now


All we have to do is give people the reasons, and greed is motivation enough for them to carry through.

Amazon (among many other e-commerce sites) shows you a discounted price and calculates for you how much you save. They offer free shipping if you just slip one more thing into your cart. You can have it sent to you with a single click (no worrying about credit card numbers or any other stressful stuff). If there aren’t enough justifications right there, you can add it to your wish list for later.

The move from cheap to free is much bigger than the move from expensive to cheap, so making something about the transaction free (shipping in the example above) removes any remnants of rational thought from the shopper’s mind.

Another way to encourage greed is to reset people’s expectations. We seek prices coherent with what we know, but of course those benchmark prices are only arbitrary. If you can succeed in resetting users’ benchmark values, you can charge what you want. Ways to do this include putting your product in a different category from those which already have a benchmark price, redefining a unit of measurement, or changing a definition so that an increased price is justified (for instance biodiesel over regular diesel).


Exessive thoughts or desires – often of a sexual nature. Well, of course sex sells (as long as it isn’t too blatant), but how else can we introduce lust?


  • Mini, on their USA site have a very slick and quite well implemented configurator that lets you design your own car. In the cold light of day, you’d never consider paying $150 for little wing mirror covers that have a union jack image on them. But once you start playing with the site, that and many other options just look right on the car, so you add them anyway. Because you are unlikely to have a good anchor point for these costs (see greed), and because they are relatively insignificant compared to the overall cost, lust can be an easy sell.
  • We all want to be loved. On May 4th, 2000 an e-mail purporting to be from one of our friends told us that yes, in fact, they did love us. That prompted enough people to open the attachment (10% of all computers attached to the Internet) that $5.5 billion of damage was caused.

Anything that you can do to make people feel loved will endear them to you, and make them more prepared to do things for you.


Uncontrolled feelings of hate or anger. How many times has that happened to you online? Your job is to channel your users’ feelings, control them, and bend them to your advantage.

Don’t label required fields on your registration form. Instead, return an error when people don’t fill one in. Now, they’ll be angry but in order to get past the form, they will be more likely to fill in all the fields!

Normally, social structures prevent people from really demonstrating hate and anger. Anonymity and a feeling of belonging are both states which encourage behavior that individuals wouldn’t normally engage in. If you can create an anonymous group of individuals with similar interests, just sit back and watch the flame wars start!


Your users’ brains have consumed so many web pages that now they ignore most of the content and make assumptions.

Unfortunately that now means that they ignore advertisements. In response, we have to place ads front and center, make them blend in with the site, and justify it to ourselves and our visitors by saying that as the ads are highly relevant, they are obviously improving the usability of the site.

Pop-up windows are now either blocked by browsers or ignored by users more often than we’d like (although a North Carolina State University study suggests you can fool your users 63% of the time). The answer is to repurpose a different control type to serve our ad revenue ends. Let’s see – oh yes, the hyperlink would be a good one: ubiquitous, familiar, and users are already trained to hover and click on them. Let’s turn those into advertisements!

You don’t have to be evil

It’s easy to shake an accusing finger at these and other sites who deliberately lead visitors into unintended actions. But waiting for them to change their ways isn’t the answer. As long as the rewards of this approach are greater than the downside (customer complaints, blog rants, etc.), they’ll keep right on down the same path.

What can we do about making bad usability good? By following these steps:

  • Complain to the company, often and annoyingly.
  • Warn and educate everyone you know about tactics like this.
  • If you think that’s a friend of yours on twitter, don’t be so sure.
  • If you get a chance to invest online, think twice.
  • Don’t buy anything from an inbound phone call.
  • That email you sent in confidence… probably won’t be read that way. And that photo, yes, it’s going to show up in the digital world where you least want to see it…
  • Avoid companies that consistently use these tactics, and spread the word about them.
  • On the flip side, reward companies who treat visitors with respect. Visit them, buy from them, and spread the word about them.
  • Help those who are less internet-savvy than yourself through the minefields.

These notes are from the Usability Week conference we recently attended by the Norman Nielsen Group.

Jim Callender

Since 2003, Callender Creates have been responsible for delivering high profile sites for a variety of Award Winning Design & Marketing Agencies. Our Strengths are in Front-End Development and Cutting Edge Web Technologies. Services include Web Consultancy, Strategy, UX, HTML5, CSS3, WordPress, and Magento. >> Need to Discuss your Next Digital Project? Contact Us