We’ve Accidentally Broken the Web – How do We Fix It?

This blog post comes from guest writer Nathalie Nahai, author and web psychologist.

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re in the business of persuasion. Not in a nefarious way, of course, but in the sense that you, like me, are tasked with designing experiences, products and user paths that favour a particular outcome. That’s the point of SEO, CRO, and the wider marketing activities of any business that seeks to attract and retain customers – which is all of them.

Whether we like it or not, we’re all in the business of influencing each other, all of the time. The only difference is that now, versus any other moment in history, we’ve moved ‘online first’. From grand displays of large follower counts, to stamps of authority and automated email responders, the experiences we design for the potential customers we meet are all meticulously engineered to increase engagement, brand salience and ultimately boost sales.

This is what we do. We design experiences, from platforms to content, to influence the behaviours of others.

Yet how often do we stop to think about how, as humans, this extraordinary technology is shaping us?

Using behavioural science to persuade

In the last few years, we’ve witnessed a huge surge in the number of businesses applying behavioural science principles to their online endeavours. I’ve worked with many of them, and have seen first hand both the extraordinary things that can be accomplished when the goals of the business are aligned with the goals of the customer, but also what can happen when integrity gets left at the door and the will of the ‘user’ is subverted to that of the business, with no thought as to what impact this may have.

The problem is that for too long we’ve been drifting away from the people we serve, a psychological wedge emerging between ‘us’ (the business) and ‘them’ (the customer). It’s evident in the approach we take, in conceiving of our clients as remote ‘users’ whose numbers we can alter to our favour if we just learn how to play the game.

We are all ‘the user’  

We seem to have forgotten, along the way, that of the strategies we employ and the principles we use to design these experiences, those that are the most effective in achieving our conversion goals get adopted as standards of best practice; irrespective of whether these practices help or hinder the user achieve their desired outcome. As these conventions then become commonplace accepted standards, all of us become subject to their forces and we are habituated into a web that serves (often ill-considered) business goals rather than us as individual people.

The advent of the commercial web has forced us to think of our customers less like people we have a relationship with, and more like numbers on a graph that require optimisation and improvement.

It’s no surprise then, that we should see a move in the opposite direction, of brands talking about transparency and authenticity to re-engage despondent ‘users’ and humanise the conversation. But what do 'transparency' and 'authenticity' even mean?

Defining our values

If we look at some of the dictionary definitions of what it is to be 'transparent', we will see explanations such as “easy to perceive or detect”, “having thoughts or feelings that are easily perceived”, or specifically in business terms, “activities that are open to public scrutiny”. The quality of being 'authentic' can be defined as something being “of undisputed origin and not a copy; genuine”, which in concrete terms, basically means being yourself. But the self is both emergent and constructed, a tapestry woven from the threads of our genetics, our personality, and our environments. So when we speak about a business being genuine, what we’re talking about is creating a culture that is at once a synthesis of the existing, sometimes implicit values of its founders, and the explicit vision of the kind of reality they wish to create. 

We need to define our values. Credit: Got Credit

If we are to really connect with others, we need to return to our values – the internal compasses we use to guide the decisions we make and the actions we take as individuals. We need to be able to articulate them in a meaningful, concrete way that enables us to make better choices when we bring them into our process. Moz’s TAGFEE is a lovely example of this in action – if you’ve ever been to MozCon or had the opportunity to meet with any members of the team, you’ll know that they strive in very tangible ways to live their values, and as a result they have attracted and grown one of the most diverse, rich and loyal communities I have ever had the privilege of being a part of.

Yes, they talk about transparency and authenticity, but they drill down into what this actually means for them:

  • Being extremely open about the company’s financial performance, releasing data publicly that most other companies would reserve for boardrooms

  • Providing a data-driven approach to problem solving through their software

  • Delivering highly personal customer-relations that defines their brand and underscores their success

So how do you make your business or products more human?

It all starts with values. This term gets thrown around a lot, but if we look at the definition taken from psychological literature, we can consider these as the “priorities, internal compasses or springboards for action” that we depend upon to inform the choices and decisions we make. In concrete terms, our values are the subjective judgments that help us ascertain how important something is to us, relative to something else (say for instance your decision to take a fulfilling but lower paid job, over one that is less exciting but more lucrative).

A snippet of the Distilled core values, from our manifesto.

Values are important not only from a personal standpoint, but also because – whether we are aware of it or not – they stretch beyond our private spheres, into our businesses, and out into the wider world. Whether implicit or explicit, our values provide the driving force that influences the tools we design and the tech we create. I’ve often heard it argued that “tools are neutral by nature, and that, by extension, our technology must be too”. But this logic doesn’t look at the full picture. We design tools for a particular purpose, just as we design our tech – and if we are not cognizant of the various impacts they may have, we’re not designing them very intelligently.

Walking the talk

In order to benefit from a values-led approach, we have to:

  1. Be explicit about what our values are (do this by defining them clearly), and

  2. Decide how you wish to express them throughout your business (outlining how they will be practically applied both internally, externally, and throughout the services you provide)

To illustrate what I mean by this, let’s return for a moment to Moz’s value of Empathy. Defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another”, Moz defines the practical implementation of this value as an approach whereby “we will treat others the way we wish to be treated: with respect for their thoughts, feelings, and opinions.” This gives a clear metric against which to assess whether the value of empathy is being successfully upheld, and provides a tangible parameter for behaviour that people can use as a guide for interaction.  

However, values and the desire to express them practically are not enough. Good intentions do not guarantee good outcomes, and dark patterns can arise through business and software unwittingly even when we’re consciously trying to avoid them. And so, in the coming years, we face a huge challenge both as users and creators of technology and content on the web. How can we build profitable, successful companies that serve to improve, rather than deteriorate our quality of life?

It’s a tough question, and marks the start of an on-going challenge and a journey I hope you will join me on. If you’re interested to learn more, and you happen to be in London on the 18th June, then please join me at my first event, Humanise the Web.

Thanks again to Nathalie for writing this excellent blog post. You can find out more about her work at The Web Psycholgist or on her Twitter page.

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