The Dark Side Of Usability: When Business Goals & User Goals Collide

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

    Take web sites, for example.

    We visit a web site, look around and like what it has to offer. We want to believe that the site—and the company behind it—has our best interests at heart. Perhaps we’ve even had a good experience with the site before.

    But then the oddities begin to creep in, the strange little inconsistencies that make us wonder… is it me, or should I really trust this site?


    It doesn’t take much to plant seeds of doubt in a visitor’s mind. Small broken promises and misunderstandings can suffice, such as:

    • We click on an ad, then don’t find the promised item on the landing page.
    • We carefully click on a product link, only to find something different highlighted on the next page.
    • We start a registration process, only to encounter many more steps than the site indicated.
    • We try to complete a specific task quickly, only to find our progress slowed by questions, ads, and confusing page layouts.

    What’s going on here? Don’t these companies know what their visitors want?

    In many cases, the answer is yes—perhaps too well. They know exactly what we want, they just choose to use that understanding in a way we don’t expect. In a way that serves their business goals, not necessarily those of their visitors.

    Let’s take a look at a couple examples I’ve run into in the past.

    Example 1—GeoTrust

    Once upon a time, it came time to renew the GeoTrust secure certificate I’d installed on a personal server. The email notice contained a convenient link which led to the following page (I’ve enlarged and called out the product list for clarity):

    So far so good, this looked like exactly what I needed. I wanted the first item on the list, the “QuickSSL” product, so I clicked on the first dark-blue “Renew” button.

    And came to this confusing page:

    Here’s where the doubt crept in. The page title is what I expected, but the content on the page seems to be all about the “QuickSSL Premium” product. Did I make a mistake? I didn’t want the Premium product, I wanted the less expensive “QuickSSL” product.

    At first glance (and most visitors won’t give the page much more time than that), the only available action on this page is the huge orange “Upgrade to QuickSSL Premium” button:

    Yikes! How do I purchase the plain “QuickSSL?” Ah, there it is, a visually de-emphasized link in small blue text:

    This is a great example of evil usability at work. Notice all the factors that contribute to this link’s obscurity:

    Unclear design. Compared to the orange button, this option does not look much like an action item. It’s smaller, in a darker color, and doesn’t look like a button at all.

    Unclear wording. The call to action, “Stay with QuickSSL,” isn’t what visitors to this page expect to do next. What they expect to do””what I expected to do when I came here””is to “purchase” or “renew,” not “stay with” the QuickSSL product.

    Unexpected positioning. Visitors interested in purchasing the QuickSSL product don’t expect the next step in the process to be hidden down at the bottom left-hand corner of a page, outside the shaded area that contains the emphasized text, and after a bunch of unexpected content. The orange button, on the other hand, IS in the expected position on the page for a next step.

    Why would GeoTrust design the page this way? Those less cynical than me might say it’s incompetence, poor audience task modeling, or a loose-cannon designer.

    I think not.

    It’s an example of a business goal overriding the visitor’s clearly stated intention. Now, we can debate the company’s intention. Perhaps they truly believe the basic “QuickSSL” product is inadequate for most customers and see this as a way to helpfully guide customers to a better solution.

    What’s more likely is that this is a pure and simple upsell that disguises its intent by twisting well-understood usability principles such as:

    Web visitors don’t generally read text. So all that verbiage that tries to make this sound like an option, instead of the only available action? Ignored by most visitors. But great cover.

    Buttons get clicked. Visitors arrive on a page looking for the next step. What’s clickable? they ask. And on this page, that clickable item is the big orange button. It’s not a carefully considered thought process, it’s a trusting response to what appears to be clear guidance. “There’s a button!” Click.

    Let’s look at another example.

    Example 2: GoDaddy

    Another task I undertook some time ago was registering a domain name through Let me preface this by saying I’ve had a decent customer experience with this company, overall, so I came into this with a fair amount of goodwill.

    I’d just found the domain name I wanted, and clicked the “Continue” button. Below is the page I saw next.

    Take a look: What’s the one item that looks most clickable on this page?

    If you answered, “The huge green button,” you’re right!

    But if you click that button, you add two additional domain names to your order, just like magic! What if that’s not what you wanted to do? What if you want to register only the domain name you picked on the previous page?

    To do this, you’d have to click the small text link under the huge green button:

    This annoys me every time I go through the GoDaddy checkout process. I’m used to it now, but each encounter incrementally diminishes the store of goodwill I have for the company. I never send friends to the site without detailed caveats along the lines of:

    “It’ll be very confusing and they’ll try to sell you extra stuff, but just ignore all that. Look for the tiny little text links that say “No thanks” and keep on going.”

    Again, it’s remotely possible GoDaddy truly believes they’re doing customers a service here. Or that they’re incompetent or don’t understand their audience.

    Again, I think not.

    You’ve got to change your evil ways, baby

    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 it? How about starting here:

    • Complain to the company, often and annoyingly.
    • Warn and educate everyone you know about tactics like this.
    • 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.

    Meanwhile, I’ll keep doing my small part by encouraging our designers, clients and anyone else who will listen to resist the temptation to join the Dark Side and use their powers for good.

    Thanks to my colleague and co-author Sandra Niehaus for providing the inspiration, research and much of the writing on this topic.

    About The Author

    Lance Loveday