The Hidden Persuaders of the Digital Age

A presentation at EuroIA 2017 in in Stockholm, Sweden by Per Axbom

Sixty years ago, in 1957, Vance Packard published The Hidden Persuaders, a classic examination of how our thoughts and feelings are manipulated by business, media and politicians, The Hidden Persuaders was the first book to expose the hidden world of “motivation research”.

Today many of the same techniques that Packard warned about are being used without hesitation to persuade users of digital products to subscribe, click, scroll, buy, invite and more. The same people who claim a user-centric mindset have no second thoughts when using learnings from psychology to obviously steer users towards desired behaviours.

Displacing user insights, psychological insights are creating a playbook for profit without regard for long-term relationships. This is not because people or businesses are evil, but while the intent may be benevolent the outcomes are becoming glaringly damaging. As designers we need to recognise this and commit to addressing the mistakes being made.

In this talk I will give examples of growing problem areas and and describe how designers need to take more responsibility for the well-being and autonomy of users, as well as some practical ways this could play out. There is a cost to doing the right thing, but there are also rarely measured human costs that we are already paying dearly for. By showcasing these costs of the different paths available to us we can boost the incentive to include more conscious, moral decision-making in the design process.