By Joel Calvert
CLICKBAIT: AN ENTRY POINT INTO THE ETHICS OF DESIGN
“Increasingly, the way we use our skills is to compensate for the deficit between the audience’s desire for a sensitive, intelligent product or service, and the product itself. The end result is a total breakdown of trust between the audience and their visual environment. The intelligent observer has almost no choice but to totally disregard aesthetics as a terrain of meaning. With this in mind, it’s no wonder that Trump’s memes beat Pentagram’s progressive ‘H’”
A post appears in the Facebook feed: a low-resolution picture of a woman embedded over the heading “Amber Alert: Please Share This Image of Her, Her Life Depends On It” [sic]. The clickbait phrasing is familiar. It’s designed to make the audience want the answer to the implied questions. The implied questions in this case are “who is she?” and “what happened to her?”, and, thanks to the operation of common human curiosity, those questions reliably arise in the mind of an audience member performing even a passing scan of the title.
As humans, if there is something we don’t know, we want to know it. The design of clickbait counts on this common human curiosity like a law of physics. It’s what makes the shuttle fly. It’s the theoretical foundation upon which the whole algorithm runs and it works because common human curiosity is a pre-conscious human reaction that we can depend to be ubiquitous and reliably repeatable. At work is the well-tested pull of unknown knowledge which has been documented in human self-narratives since ancient history, and, here, it’s being used to harvest clicks.
Across the commercial landscape, clickbait represents a design that solves a client problem. The client in this case is any internet-age marketing division. For this sector of business, one vital question constantly recurs: “how do we increase online audience engagement?” The structure of the problem for internet-age marketing reads like this: metrics tell us whether our work succeeds or fails, therefore metrics are important; the most important metric in online marketing is the number of audience engagements; therefore, how do we achieve a higher ratio of audience engagements? In lingo, how do we increase CTR (Click-Through Rate)? The designed solution to this problem is what we’ve come to call clickbait: if you want to increase audience engagement with article posts, design article titles in a way which makes the audience desire the information contained in the article without giving them any of that information up front. Presenting information in this specific way will more-or-less automatically draw out the desired reaction from your audience.
Commonly, clickbait design is applied to tabloid content and listicles: “23 Things Parents Should Never Apologize For”, “Is This The End? Or Just The Beginning For Randy? His Wife Reveals His Latest Health News” [sic]. Writers and copy-editors are trained to apply this phrase design as a part of their professions because it works. Questions regarding the ethics of the practice rarely arise. However, in the unusual occurrence above, an Amber Alert is presented in this clickbait format. An ethical problem rears its head. The problem becomes apparent when we return again to our commonly-held knowledge about the basic internal operations of the human animal: on some level we all understand that, as well as being reliably curious, human beings are also reliably lazy. We are finite. We only have so much attention, concentration, or care to allocate at once and we have to be frugal with how we use it. Further, like physical bodies, our mental processes follow the law of inertia. Human beings resist state change and, like water and electricity, we prefer to follow the path of least resistance. Whether mentally or physically, there is only so much that we can devote energy to at one time and we prefer to stay where we currently are. Applied to the internet context, this natural posturing means that when a general audience of human beings is presented with a choice to click, there will always be audience members who do not make that choice because inaction is easier than action. Presenting an Amber Alert in the format of clickbait, then, has real consequences, because users must now actively seek out information that could have been presented to them in the title. If the information about the woman (her name, her last known location, a physical description) was presented up-front (as is conventionally done with Amber Alerts) more people would see that information and possibly be able to assist. That up-front format enables the sort of mass public notification which is the point of an Amber Alert.
This is a design problem.
The case is unusual; Amber Alerts are infrequently structured in this format, so why is this post an exception? Whether intended or not, here title design has been applied in a manner which benefits the linked site over the endangered subject of the Amber Alert. The post drives audience members toward its site at the cost of giving its audience members the emergency information up front. The post increases CTR for the site. There is usually no ethical dilemma created by this operation. But clickbait works because it makes information less visible. In this situation, we are not talking about tabloid news or palace drama. Information that could help save a person’s life is being withheld for the benefit of an internet company. This is a case where there is little-to-no difference between information being made less available and it being outright withheld, because if the important information had been built into the landscape of the audience’s user experience instead of requiring individuals to seek it out, the problem would not exist.
Comparatively, this example is a small thing; it’s just one terrible clickbait site using tragedy to their benefit, and there are other, much worse cases. But our encounter with this instance is significant because it speaks as one of many voices in a conversation about design ethics which seems distinctly absent in contemporary Anglo-American thought. Design naturally poses certain troubling problems and questions that real humans must answer. The first step is seeing these problems in the first place.
WHAT DO WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT DESIGN, AND WHY SHOULD WE CARE?
“How on earth do you wrangle the discussion of an extremely diverse range of disciplines—from industrial to fashion and everything in between? The crux of the problem appears to be a side effect of using language indiscriminately; we use the word “design” as both a noun and as a verb, describing both the outcome and the process.”
There is very little about our lives and daily environments which we could say is not designed or does not have some design. Phrases can have design just as architecture, a city layout, your mother’s garden, hiking shoes, retail incentive programs, shopping carts, corporate advertisements, contact lenses, your daily schedule, the curvature of a road, the height of a bridge, governmental structure, and political policy.
Furthermore, in a world where almost any aspect of life is designed, we can say that almost anyone engages in the act of designing. Design can be done professionally, but it is more frequently done by you and me—common designers. The difference between professional and common design is the difference between a corporate consultant employing strategic design to re-engineer the decision-making structure of a company and a homeowner rearranging their living space to make it feel more inviting. A common designer may just be you, a student, working at a desk who moves their little bag of candy just out of reach to keep them from continuing to binge. This is a design action.
Despite the wide range of what design could be and who takes design actions, when distilled to its fundamentals, we can say that design involves interaction. This interaction typically occurs between a created condition and an intended audience. A canal is dug to guide water along a certain path, a social media platform is designed to enable a certain kind of communication, and financial legislation is designed to restrict banks from taking certain actions. Design channels, enables, and incapacitates. These interactions can be intentional or unintentional. But talking too much in generalities does little to help to move the discussion along. We can probably assemble a more coherent definition of design as we dig into deeper, specific issues.
ARE THERE ETHICS IN DESIGN?
“I’m very interested in the idea of presenting war in a way where the viewer is not encouraged to identify with either party. Adopting a critical position where you present a good side and a bad side is something I find deeply problematic.”
Because design often involves humans interacting indirectly with large numbers of other humans, there are plenty of opportunities for ethical problems. Our clickbait example above lends validity to this idea. A design, whether intended or not, can cause real harm to real people, even when it is simply the way a sentence is phrased. This one example throws other design decisions into question. The architectural design of a building or the layout of a small city may not present obvious ethical issues, but are they devoid of them? Are building planners dealing with ethical choices when they decide whether or not to include a communal space in an apartment complex, and are university professors dipping into ethical spaces when they organize a course syllabus? There are certainly ethics in design, but where and when do they appear?
Let’s take a look at some problems embedded in the nature of design that contribute to ethical dilemmas. They are threatening, primarily, because they can arise in all types of design—“from industrial to fashion” and from professional design to common design. These problems have much more to do with human nature than with what it takes to make an attractive poster, and if not well considered in a design, that design threatens to harm real human beings. The following list is not comprehensive nor extensively developed—I don’t trek endlessly through exactly how these problems extrapolate across all fields and levels of design—but it’s a start. It’s an entry into a discussion and a presentation of that discussion’s vocabulary and questions. The end goal of this article is that we become consciously aware of what we, as common designers, daily and automatically engage in.
#1 “IT IS MORE DIFFICULT” MEANS “IT WILL HAPPEN LESS”: DESIGN AND THE ECONOMICS OF HUMAN ACTION
When political action groups talk about voter suppression laws, they are concerned with institutionalized items which make voting less available. These groups view voting as something which should be done by as many people as possible. If new legislation makes participation in the voting process more complex, it is then more difficult for people to take that action. The issue that faces groups fighting voter suppression laws is that additional red tape does not explicitly restrict voting action. However, these groups understand that the structure of a system can de-incentivize action. The idea that worries these groups is “Yes, people can but more won’t.”
The basic issue here is that design can obstruct human action. Tasks like voting have a process, a design, and if more effort is required from a task, fewer people will complete the task. Like clickbait design, obstructing human action is not inherently unethical, but it can occur—intentionally or unintentionally—in situations where it does become an ethical issue. For example, the structure of a human resources department within a company may unintentionally discourage the reporting of sexual misconduct. If it is not apparent to an employee who to bring their complaint to, if there is no guarantee of confidentiality, if the process could endanger their job, or if verified reports are not followed with meaningful action, it is much less likely that sexual misconduct will be reported. These are flaws in HR design. On the other hand, lockout-tagout systems on dangerous machinery are an industrial design which create barriers to machine operation in order to protect the operators. This is an ethical case of obstructing action where the obstruction is helpful, since safety systems like this one prevent accidents by imposing redundant steps which must be completed before operation is possible. The absence of these steps would put lives at risk.
Design can prevent the report of abuse, and it can prevent the possibility of injury. Its operation can be intentional or unintentional, but the intention does not matter to the real people interacting with the design who only see and care about its operation. These ideas and the idea that design can enable and disable important human action are ethical subjects to consider carefully when designing.
#2 THE PROCESS IS THE PRODUCT: SYSTEM DESIGN
“It seems a bit obvious but the way that public services are organized inevitably influences the outcomes they achieve. Policymakers and managers are taking [sic] design decisions all the time, too often without realizing it.”
In the process of the making a movie, the skill of the director, the actors, screenwriters, and all departments may not factor at all into the quality of the final product if the design of the production system restricts them. If resources are difficult to obtain or producers demand unachievable deadlines and last-minute focus-grouped alterations to the film, then the production system has already killed the movie.
This is the idea that the process is the product: there is no separating the final outcome from the system that created it. Systems have design and, completely unintentionally, a system can debilitate every department and every individual inside itself so that individual effort and skill no longer matters. This bad design can prevent the delivery of an important service or product. In the example above of the dysfunctional HR department, the structure of the department’s process prevents it from protecting employees against sexual abuse in the workplace. In a similar way, the time allotted and the procedure established to research, write, propose, review, and enact policy within a legislative branch of government determines important qualities of that final policy. Like most legislation, this policy likely affects hundreds of thousands of real people. In a university course syllabus, the spacing of readings, essays, labs, or presentations may prevent students from engaging with the material as well as they could. The overloading, underdelivery, frontloading, backloading, or at-will rearranging of coursework could obstruct the effort of education if students become overwhelmed, bored, or confused by the structure of the course.
These last few examples are systems with more obvious ethical design problems. As fellow human beings, we care about these issues. We want to make sure to the best of our ability that sufferers of sexual abuse are given comfort and justice, that citizens are treated fairly through legislation, and that students are given the best chance at their education. System design is much more susceptible to ethical problems because of how many people it directly affects, and a bad system is a disservice to those real people who must operate within it.
The first step to amending a bad system, as Colligan implies in the section epigraph, is simply becoming aware that every system has a design. With this realization comes the always-hopeful idea that a poorly designed system—whether intentional or unintentional—is still designed, and can therefore be redesigned. The question then becomes “how can we make sure the new system is better than the old system?”
#3 DESIGN OFTEN OPERATES FROM SOME UNDERSTANDING OF THE HUMAN CONDITION
Designs do not appear from nowhere. They are developed by humans who intend a certain interaction from their design and have a certain understanding of themselves, their fellow man, and the relationship of their design to their fellow man. This is a return to the idea that clickbait works because it implicitly incorporates an understanding of common human curiosity.
Successful architectural elements are conceived with reference to human proportions and well-designed tools are crafted to mold to the human hand. The size of a can of soda, the width of keys on a piano, the height of a doorway all correspond to the common physical characteristics of human beings. Similarly, design can operate successfully from common psychological, social, or moral understandings of man. Clickbait understands that man is curious. The automotive marketing team working on a luxury car ad understands how their audience views wealth, extravagance, and the proper social ways to display those things. A cereal commercial understands that their audience values family and community. The narrator’s Southern accent in the truck commercial targets a specific subculture. Clothing commercials rarely advertise anything about the clothes but instead sell us the lifestyle that we could be living inside the clothes. These tactics are not based on an understanding of man as a rational being. Instead they successfully target man as a psychological being, as a social being, and as a being with a complex system of values. Those understandings of man are what makes commercial advertising so effective. The simple narrative of “This time-saving device allows you to spend more time with your family” is crafted around certain complex ideas about the human person, that person’s place in the modern world, and their relationship to other people.
Returning to a question posed above, is the inclusion of a communal space in an apartment complex an ethical issue? During this design project, the architect must explicitly or implicitly answer the questions “How is social life important to human beings? How would a communal space in the apartment complex enrich the social lives of its tenants? How would I design this space to fit tenants’ social needs? Do I have a duty to the tenants to build this communal space, or do I have a duty to my client to turn that area into monetizable apartment space?” How all these questions are answered depends on the designer’s view of their fellow human beings and how they conceived of their role as a designer.
Returning again to an old example, to even begin to redesign a broken HR structure, we must first care about bettering the lives of our fellow human beings. Any attempt at a redesign of the system must begin from that empathetic foundation. I have used the phrase “important human action” in this article to describe situations where the act of enabling or disabling human action may be an ethical problem. As a designer, how do you begin to consider when and when not to apply certain designs—to enable or disable human actions—if you have no understanding of the human person? It’s impossible. Such design work implicitly incorporates an understanding of man.
#4 DESIGN CAN IMPROVE HUMAN LIFE, IF OPERATING FROM A GOOD UNDERSTANDING OF HUMAN NATURE
“Once you begin making conditions to breed happiness a right you tread on the rights of others”
–A person on the NPR Facebook comment section…
It’s right to be wary of creating conditions, but that action is not intrinsically harmful. The creation of new conditions is often the concern of design. Your decision to move the bag of candy out of your reach redesigns your immediate landscape and creates the condition of it being more difficult for you to reach the candy. That purposeful change to your condition is meant to improve some aspect of your existence. This is the general hope of design work: that creating new conditions can be beneficial. In opposition to what the epigraph expresses, the goal is not to breed something specific by creating a condition, but to create a platform which allows for the freedom of possibility.
Let’s return to the idea that the ideal format for an Amber Alert is one that presents the necessary information up-front to the audience. When you place something in front of a group or individuals instead of requiring them to seek it out, they will interact with that thing more often. If we understand that design always incorporates an account of the human person, we can hope that a better-considered account of the human person may result in a better designed human landscape. Could a city designed with a better understanding of the social needs of human beings improve the lives of its inhabitants?
Making conditions that improve human life is a worthy hope implicit in the idea of design. But as common designers—managers, students, legislators, parents, writers, musicians, friends, etc.—we must be careful that informing the design of any conditions we aim to create is a good understanding of the human person. Any discussion of exactly what that means is beyond the scope of this article.
“This is far from problem solving. This framework forces the designer to turn their attention away from a tight problem and retrain it upon the systems that may have created it. The shift pushes the designer into a position of accountability for the work they’re undertaking, as the nature of it demands interaction, feedback, and collaboration with the viewer.”
Built into this discussion is the radical idea that designers are responsible for what they design; that when you design an advertisement for a gambling casino you are not just throwing typography and shapes out into ether, but that what you create is having real interactions with real people and may influence the action that they take.
As designers, this is not an easy ethical position to be in. But as human beings, it’s good to realize that difficulty.
Joel Calvert graduated in 2016 with a degree in art.
BIB / FURTHER READING
1 Rob Peart, “Why Design is Not Problem Solving + Design Thinking Isn’t Always the Answer”, Eye on Design, 19 Jan 2017
2 Philip Colligan, “What does it mean to design public services?”, The Guardian, 1 September 2011
3 Harry Gassel, “Visual Identity: Meet David Rudnick, the Designer behind Evian Christ, RL Grime and Wil Fry’s Sharp Aesthetics, The Fader, 9 September 2014
4 Eva Folks, “An interview with David Rudnick”, Atractivoquenobello, 21 April 2014
5 Dan Hill, Dark Matter and Trojan Horses: A Strategic Design Vocabulary, Strelka Press, 2012