Toward More Ethical KPIs

Toward More Ethical KPIs

Discussions of digital transformation tend to focus on how new technologies can improve business profits – and with reason. Making profits is how businesses stay around.

Too often, though, these conversations don’t go far enough. For companies that want to position themselves for long-term success as technology continues to evolve, digital transformation conversations must also address the impact transformation has on the business’s customers.

More to the point, the success of any digital transformation effort should be measured by how much it improves customers’ lives. Here’s a look at why and how companies must make that happen.

Dark UX Patterns: The Problem with Exploiting Human Instincts

Dark UX patterns aim to exploit fundamental human instincts like fear, shame, greed, and laziness and to abuse natural cognitive abilities. Companies use these patterns to increase engagement, boost conversion rates, sneak in hidden costs, misdirect consumers, spam users, and more.

Because many digital products are measured by key performance indicators (KPIs) that prioritize engagement, conversion rates, and revenue, there’s a temptation to incorporate dark UX patterns to make it easier for users to do the things that lead to higher profits, rather than making it easy for users to choose any path that appeals to them.

In other words, it can be tempting to improve KPIs by appealing to the worst parts of human nature.

Think, for example, of the endless scroll feature on some social media platforms. We fear missing out, so we keep scrolling. We’re naturally prone to laziness, so we don’t get up and do something different.

While endless scroll may boost engagement rates (and therefore increase the number of ads customers can be served and therefore the ad revenue the company can earn), it may not benefit the business in the long term.

That’s because prioritizing engagement as a KPI ignores the customer’s well being. Research shows that too much time engaging with screens causes a host of problems:

  • Sleep disruption
  • Increased risk of negative health outcomes (including obesity, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes)
  • Impaired cognitive ability
  • Impaired emotional regulation
  • Lowered self esteem
  • Impaired socializing abilities

In children, excessive screen time can actually alter the brain’s development in harmful ways.

So when designers, developers, marketers, and others are measured on how long they can keep users engaged, they’re incentivized to do things that are not beneficial to users’ long-term health and wellness.

Another example of dark UX patterns you’re probably familiar with is the “confirm shame” link (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Confirm-shame link from Delish

This example exploits the human desire for belonging: rather than offering a simple “No, thanks” option, it says “No thanks, I’ll have a microwave dinner tonight,” thus positioning the person as outside the “in” group that has delicious meal ideas.

This is nefarious because the user isn’t just getting those meal ideas, of course. By entering their email address, they’re likely agreeing to get countless communications from Delish, which they may not want.

The humanist reason these practices are bad is obvious.

The capitalist reason is less so, so I’ll spell it out: in the short term, when confronted with obviously manipulative designs, people will opt out, unsubscribe, and stop using a product.

But the longer-term results don’t require customers to recognize dark UX patterns – the work those patterns do on the human psyche will manifest all on its own: teenage depression rates are at all-time highs, for example and social media has been cited as a factor.

And people with mental and physical health problems are less able to be productive, which means they’re less able to earn money, which means they have less money to spend on the products and services various businesses are selling.

Bleak, right?

But that’s the long-term reality that most businesses ignore because there’s pressure from every level of leadership to improve numbers for the current quarter. And too often, the easiest way to improve numbers in the short term involves at least some dark UX patterns.

(Read more: How the Pandemic Will Shape UX: 2021 and Beyond)

What to Measure Instead

So what should businesses be measuring to determine whether they’re making their customers’ lives better? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all metric.

Instead, every business has to figure out what it would look like for their specific product or service to make their customers’ lives better.

This, of course, requires research. You have to understand how your customers are living and how and why they use your product or service, in both intended and unintended ways. You have to develop empathy for these people and what they need and want and love and fear.

And from there, you can decide what to measure.

If that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Genuinely understanding your customers is a messy process. It won’t happen in a two-hour workshop.

But the good news is that the metrics you develop from that work – your new, ethical KPIs – will be much more accurate predictors of long-term success than your current KPIs.

How We Get There: Rethinking How We Measure Success

Shifting from business practices that measure only bottom-line performance to practices that measure customer wellbeing is no small thing. It’s at least as big an undertaking as any other type of digital transformation. And it’s at least as important to the long-term stability and viability of an enterprise.

(Read more: Why Customer Centricity Should Be the First Goal of an Insurance Company’s Digital Transformation)

Digital platforms are so ubiquitous today it’s easy to forget that many of the ones we rely on most are relatively new. It’s hard to imagine life without giants like Google (23 years old) and Facebook (18 years old) and the ways they push us to engage and structure our lives and our businesses.

But in the long term, businesses that aren’t making people’s lives better don’t prevail. Look at the Fortune 500 from 2000: Enron, Sears, and Washington Mutual were all on it. The lesson: business practices that aim solely for profit will ultimately doom the business.

The downfall doesn’t always happen quickly, of course. And ultimately, I believe we’ll need a regulatory body to oversee digital practices. Right now, though, there are three things we can do to push toward more ethical practices:

  1. UX professionals can highlight and push against dark UX patterns when others push for them and educate their coworkers about the long-term damages these patterns cause. They can also conduct research on customers’ needs and behaviors to ensure that the products they design are meeting those needs and contributing to behaviors that have a positive impact.
  2. Executives can advocate to focus on metrics that go beyond the current quarter’s performance.
  3. Everyone can educate themselves about dark UX patterns and the negative impact they have on users.

Knowledge Is the First Step

Again, making a shift toward more ethical business practices is not small. It’s giant. But it’s incredibly important for businesses that want sustainable growth for the long term.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Mike Monteiro, a designer notable for his philosophy of digital design: “By choosing to be a designer, you are choosing to affect the people who come in contact with your work. Learn how to tell if your work will hurt or help those people and how to measure social impact alongside shareholder value.”

If you’re ready to rethink the way you measure performance as part of your digital transformation journey, get in touch with us today. We’d love to be your guides.

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