Blogless: Blog of Design Less Better.

Posts tagged Trust.


Ethical ambiguity in the design of Google AdWords is what leads to conflicting claims about the ethical status of Google's advertising practice. All the more reason we need a system of ethics for making design decisions.

On Monday, I referenced a blog post written by Eric Clemons at TechCrunch. Clemons' post states that advertising on the internet will fail, to which I added "unless it takes its medicine". I also mentioned that there were a variety of interesting points he made along the way. I'd like to highlight one of these today. It's about Google.

Clemons puts a fairly fine point on it: "Misdirection [is] sending customers to web locations other than the ones for which they are searching. This is Google’s business model."

Google itself espouses a serious commitment to not misdirecting its users: "...while we believe relevant ads can be as useful as actual search results, we don't want anyone to be confused about which is which."

And indeed in this case, I wonder whether it really is fair to suggest that Google ads "misdirect" users. Recall that in 2002, the Federal Trade Commission issued a set of guidelines which specified that paid search ads be clearly labeled and delineated from other results. Google, today, indicates paid ads by marking them as "Sponsored," and placing them off to the side of their other search results.

In my mind, the only tenable way to argue that Google's business model relies on misdirection is by reference to the fact that some of its design decisions are manipulative. As any good web designer knows, people don't read on the web - they scan. By indicating that certain links are sponsored (e.g.) in a lighter text color, or off to the top right corner where it is known that the least amount of scanning eyes are prone to glance, etc., Google is "softly" misdirecting inattentive or inexperienced users.

If this argument doesn't hold water, then Google's BM does not rely on misdirection just because the relevant design decisions are ethically acceptable ones.

Google AdWords

If that's all true, it is further fuel for the DLB fire. We need a way to decide whether a given design decision is an ethical one in order to bring clarity to a fuzzy case like Google's without relying on polemics. And I for one would certainly count it as fairly good evidence of the need for systematized design ethics if having it enabled us to evaluate whether or not Google "does no evil."

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
PaulApr 15, 2009

Caveat to the End of Advertising

The venerable Eric Clemons recently proclaimed the death of Internet advertising. DLB's alternative: Advertising can change or die.

Eric Clemons, Professor of Operations and Information Management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, recently wrote a highly controversial guest post at TechCrunch. It is a wealth of ideas worth considering, but its basic message is this: advertising on the internet will fail. Today I'm going to try and evaluate this conclusion. On Wednesday, I'll touch briefly on an interesting point he makes later in the article.

According to Clemons, advertising on the Internet will fail because of three states of affairs (hereafter, SOA):

  1. People don't trust ads. (cf. BlogLESS, Remembering Promises)
  2. People don't want ads. ("When do you leave the TV to get a snack?" he asks, "Is it during the content or the commercials?")
  3. People don't need ads when they have friends and independent professional rating sites from which to obtain information. (cf. BlogLESS, Social Networking and Brands)
A Puff of Smoke Appears
via Flickr

Now consider the following. SOA3 states that people don't need ads because other, more preferable resources are available to provide them with information. Clemens notes that "It’s not that we no longer need information to initiate or to complete a transaction; rather, we will no longer need advertising to obtain that information." This means that SOA3 is the case if and only if SOA2 is the case. In other words, if people found ads sufficiently preferable, this would undermine the efficacy of SOA3. There are many thriving phenomena that consumers want but clearly do not need. For example, reality television.

Now, ask yourself why SOA2 is the case. Or better, ask Clemons, who takes up the question as he dismisses a certain practical alternative: "better targeting of ads using individual interests and individual behaviors will ensure that we do not bore or annoy as many people with each ad, but cannot address the trust issue." In other words, people do not want ads because they are noise. The messages contained in them are not worthy of consideration, and thus are perceived as useless cognitive clutter in the already messy space of the Internet.

This means that SOA2 would collapse if SOA1 was not the case. In other words, if people perceived that they could trust ads, they would become virtually indistinguishable from other contentful, potentially useful information on the Internet.This means that, advertising on the Internet will indeed fail, but only if it can't develop trust by making meaningful, keepable promises.

Of course, some of you will recognize this as what we've been talking about for the last year. We hope that Clemons' popular essay and findings provide further motivation for advertisers to work hard on developing strategies that Clemons himself may not have yet considered a feasible subset of advertising.

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
PaulApr 13, 2009

Considering the code of ethics as brand

In the first of a weeklong series on codes of ethics, DLB examines the ways in which a doctor is like a McDonald's.

A while back, we brought up the dilemma of balancing business with authority. How can experts like designers be trusted not to misuse their expertise for the sake of profit?

In that same post, I suggested that a potential solution to the problem of trusting authority is a code of ethics. Today, I want try and connect this idea with some of our previous writing and state that a code of ethics is a form of branding.

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
NickMar 16, 2009

The business of ethical authority

Where we last left off, I was pondering the trajectory of DLB. Spreading the word about design ethics is our next step, but ultimately, we want to go out and help people design more ethically. We'd also like to get paid to do so. This begs the question: How does one balance business with authority?

To be in business, you have to have the requisite knowledge and/or skills of your trade. People trust that you know what you're doing; that you know more about something than they do-- I would call this authority. If you don't have it, you have no business diagnosing and fixing things.

The trouble is authority can easily be abused. The quintessential example of this is an auto mechanic. While it's the mechanic's job to diagnose your car for you, it must be difficult for them to be impartial. It's in their best interest to find something wrong or at least tell you that there is some work that needs to be done. This is not to say mechanics are inherently dishonest, it's just that there is a definite conflict of interest in play.

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
NickFeb 26, 2009

Ranking the most ethical companies in the world

What are the ethics of advertising ethics?

As we currently wrestle with a definition of design ethics, I have been struck by another question: what does the endgame for this project look like?

Not to jump ahead too far, but assuming we come up with a model of "good" design, what next?

I think we ask: What can be done to educate designers and consumers on good ethical practices? Moreover, how can we hope to enforce those ethics?

This post was inspired by Ethisphere, a business ethics think-tank that also publishes a magazine on the topic. I learned about them last week during this piece on NPR.

Besides their mission, what interested me is how they create awareness about business ethics in accessible ways. Ideally, if corporations and the public are better informed about ethics, that may serve as a kind of enforcement. Therefore, as we enter into the next stage of DLB -- publication -- I am interested in metrics and visualizations people use to talk about ethics.

For instance, Ethisphere has an annual list of the most ethical companies in the world. I can't begin to imagine what a task it would be to compile a list of the most ethical designs, but it's an idea. People like lists. They're easy to digest and a good way to get people interested in complex topics.

Graphs are nice, too:

World's Most Ethical Companies versus S&P 500
According to Ethisphere, ethical leadership leads to greater profits. It's something we've been saying for a while, but now we have proof of it in handy chart form. Via Ethisphere.

I'm a bit skeptical about Ethisphere's methodology, however. Participation in the index seems to be voluntary, so it's not exactly comprehensive. It seems to be a more collegial affair; the magazine isn't out there doing investigative journalism. There is no "least ethical companies in the world" list each year. (Though, I'd like to see that, too.)

I wonder why this is the case? On one hand, as a company that needs to sell magazines and fill conferences, how objective can Ethisphere afford to be? Who is to say they aren't creating their own market by judging unfairly? Or being too generous to avoid stepping on toes? On the other hand, if they aren't ethical or objective themselves, then they can't claim any kind of authority. The more I think about it, the more complex the situation becomes.

I think DLB is in a similar pickle. How can one sell ethics in a trustworthy way?

I will try to figure that out on Thursday. See you then!

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
NickFeb 24, 2009

Remembering Promises

DLB's second weekend wrap-up is about our recent work on promises.

We've been on a solid run of fairly substantive posts recently, breaking a little ground in a lot of directions. Today, I thought I'd take a moment to try and encapsulate the heart of our December work on the role of promises play in advertising and design.

Promise to Return by Edward Bielejec
Promise to Return by Edward Bielejec

This thread probably starts with our consequentialist account of design, which motivated our positions on telling the truth (and therefore being ethical -- an observation which we couldn't help but notice Seth Godin echoing recently). For those who may not recall our first slogan, it's very simple: Be good. Because if you're not, and you lie about it, people will find out.

From there, it was a matter of simply asking how we were on the hook for our choices. The answer to this question was easy: because our livelihood is based on securing the trust of the consumers and constituents to whom we tailor our clients' products and services.

Now, the real work was ready to begin. Let's review it:

  1. We get consumer trust by making promises, which we call advertisements.
  2. There's no other way to get this trust, and this fact leads to all manner of advertising tricks. We covered promising almost nothing, merely insinuating something -- however implausible, or promising something vague.
  3. All these tricks make consumers jaded. This exhausts many of the standard model advertisement options, a fact which leads advertisers to adopt an ironic stance toward the whole promising practice in general.
  4. This ironic stance, though, undermines trust in the brand, which was what advertising was supposed to secure in the first place.
  5. This all leads us to believe that it's not enough to merely tell the truth, you have to make meaningful promises that you can keep.

In slogan form: Brands are built on trust, which is only sustainable when built on meaningful promises kept.

Combining our two slogans has interesting results, which we will continue to explore in February.

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
PaulJan 30, 2009

A Marginal Code

Today, DLB presents the first of two parts in its practical critique of the WOMMA's "Honesty ROI," as a candidate ethical code for advertisers.

You will recall that on Monday, I presented the three aspects of the so-called Honesty ROI by the WOMMA. You may also recall that I expressed some reservations about the distinctness of the so-called R-rule and the I-rule. That's where I'll start today. I want to collapse the R-rule into the I-rule. I've thought about this, and I think that if a marketer fails to disclose her relationship to a company whose product she's promoting, she's ostensibly doing nothing more than violating the I-rule, because she fails to identify herself as a marketer, and thus tacitly represents herself as an average consumer. So there are really two rules now:

  1. The RI-rule: Marketers should not masquerade as non-marketers.
  2. The O-rule: Marketers should not enforce their own (or their employers') opinions on consumers.
These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
PaulJan 21, 2009

The WOMMA’s "Honesty ROI"

This week, Design Less Better will be thinking about the ethics of word of mouth marketing, and taking a look at the WOMMA Ethics Code to do so.

I talked a couple of weeks ago about how so-called social media can help your company's branding effort, and what that means about conducting your business. It is pretty obvious that social media is a (relatively) new kind of marketing game, which would seem to imply a new set of rules as well. Given that, I'd like to spend this week to being feeling out the ethical terrain of designing and strategizing with social media.

The pretty clear place to start this (at least according to Google) is looking at the published ethics code for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). Word of mouth marketing is the heart of most social media campaigns, and WOMMA has been advocating it since 2005. According to their mission, they employ an ethical code as part of their core strategy.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association

The heart of the WOMMA code is the so-called "Honesty ROI," a name which should strike at least a tangential chord with us DLB types, given our insistence on the critical role of keeping meaningful promises in all types of corporate design and marketing. The R.O.I. in question here cashes out to: Relationship, Opinion, Identity. This week, my plan is to look at each of these points in turn, and evaluate the stance of the WOMMA against the stance that we've been developing. I'll look for both similarities and disjunctions, either of which will hopefully be instructive in our ongoing investigation of design ethics.

Today, I'll just paraphrase the WOMMA's position, and on Wednesday and Friday, I'll take it up in earnest.

These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
PaulJan 19, 2009
← Newer PostsOlder Posts →