We all started on our paths to becoming product designers by wanting to create platforms people wanted to use. None of us dreamt of one day designing platforms that tricked users into using them, did we?

Simon Mauro Guido

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rise in technology since the internet has been matched by the rise in people suffering from anxiety. We’re chasing numbers, likes, affirmation — and we designers are exploiting that. But why? Maybe because in the real world of business, where everyone has to answer to someone, we designers are chasing numbers too (active users, conversions), likes (reviews), and affirmation (career progression, pay rises?).

“In order to get the next round of funding, in order to get your stock price up, the amount of time that people spend on your app has to go up. So, when you put that much pressure on that one number, you’re going to start trying to invent new ways of getting people to stay hooked.”

Aza Raskin

Infinite Scroll

Pagination stops any platform having to load all relevant data at once, which aids loading speeds. It’s also a behaviour we were used to from the non-digital age, when we get to the end of a page or chapter we have to turn the page (you can see where the term pagination came from). But imagine if there were no page breaks or chapters. There would be no natural pause, when would you stop and take a break?

Former Mozilla designer, Aza Raskin, designed the infinite scroll in 2006 whilst working for Humanized. Infinite scroll allows the user to continuously swipe down through content, but crucially only loading content on-demand, so as not to have to load all content at once. There are no page breaks, no natural pauses. Infinite scroll kept users looking at their phones far longer than necessary, but it’s become a normal behaviour now.

“If you don’t give your brain time to catch up with your impulses, you just keep scrolling”.

Aza Raskin

Aza stated that many designers were being pressured into creating addictive app features by the business models of the big companies that employed them.


YouTube and Netflix know exactly how to keep us hooked. Once we’ve watched what we wanted to see, there’s a countdown timer until we’re automatically shown something we ‘might also be interest in’. The platform’s engagement metrics go up the more we watch, but it’s a bit of an artificial metric isn’t it? Are we really engaged if we’re passively watching what we didn’t choose to watch?

75% of Netflix viewing decisions are from product recommendations.


Likes, thumbs up, hearts or whatever form it takes, have become one of the most addictive aspects of social media. It provides us validation on the content we post, and our popularity.

The co-inventor of Facebook’s like feature, Leah Pearlman, has said she had become hooked on social media because she began basing her sense of self-worth on the number of likes she had.

“The thought process that went into building these applications, Facebook being the first of them, was all about: how do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?”

Sean Parker, founding member of Facebook

Products that practice unethical design patterns, and focus on metrics over real user experience may prosper in the short term, but things are changing. (now Small Technology Foundation) is a not-for-profit organisation striving for social justice in the digital age. They defined an “Ethical Hierarchy of Needs” that describe the core of ethical design.

Ethical Hierarchy of Needs,

Each layer in the pyramid is reliant on those that form the foundations below it. For example, if a design does not support human rights how can it possibly be ethical?

So in practice, a product that exploits user data, uses dark patterns, or that is only out to make money, is forgetting its human purpose, and is therefore unethical.

Human Rights

Technology that respects human rights is decentralised, peer-to-peer, zero-knowledge, end-to-end encrypted, free and open source, interoperable, accessible, and sustainable.

It respects and protects your civil liberties, reduces inequality, and benefits democracy.

Human Effort

Technology that respects human effort is functional, convenient, and reliable.

It is thoughtful and accommodating; not arrogant or demanding. It understands that you might be distracted or differently-abled. It respects the limited time you have on this planet.

Human Experience

Technology that respects human experience is beautiful, magical, and delightful.

It just works. It’s intuitive. It’s invisible. It recedes into the background of your life. It gives you joy. It empowers you with superpowers. It puts a smile on your face and makes your life better.


(This post has been sitting in draft for a few months. Today I was tagged in a discussion about researching with vulnerable/distressed people and I just pressed publish. The post started out as an email I sent to the UK GDS User Research mailing list on the topic of doing user research with vulnerable people.)


In 2017-2018 I worked on a web service for compulsive gamblers created by a non-profit organisation (funded by the gambling industry) at the request of the UK Gambling Commission.

(NB: Many participants would disagree with this “compulsive gambler” label, but according prior research they were).

The service “epic user story” was for:

a compulsive gambler to be able to ban themselves from accessing online gambling websites and smartphone gambling apps

What follows below is a mixture of learnings I had about my professional work and how to conduct research with vulnerable users, and also advice to others who may need to do the same

Seek professional help!

I was reasonably comfortable with my approach in terms of ethics, and consent. However I still felt I needed expert psychological review of my approach to the work.

I made contact via a project stakeholder (who was also a trained clinical psychologist and addiction therapist) with a chartered psychologist and academic researcher also connected to the project.

This was because the project was going into a difficult psychological area which I was not trained in. I am not a professional psychologist. I’m a user centred design professional.

The purpose was to review my intial approach to the project, review my consent documentation, and “after research” support and care information.

They also provided me with some academic research papers to understand more. I used these papers to carry out a short literature review.

This lit. review helped me enormously to understand the psychological states my participants were in, their rational for their behaviour. It gave me a better understanding of the language they would use.

Remote / in person research

Initially I expected to carry out this research in person. In person research allows for more emotionally rich research – you can see the non-verbal communications we all make.

When it became difficult to carry out in-person research I switched to telephone and Skype calls.

This proved to be very successful. People seemed to open up and speak frankly. I can’t say why – if it was the distance, speaking to a “disembodied voice?

This was totally unexpected, but made for better quality research. The learning for me was challenge your expectations of research methods.

For the participants

Frame research clearly

In the pre-research session communications I made it very clear that I was not a gambling support therapist – I was not capable of discussing effects of gambling on the persons life. I was designing software.

While this may have an effect on limiting discussions about the reasons your participant has been become vulnerable, it should also limit cathartic but difficult conversations which you are not trained to deal with. This is to protect both the participant and youself.

Anonymity by default

Due to the potentially massively negative effects (financially, professionally, psychologically) on their lives of their gambling activities, I mandated this research would be anonymous.

The only person who would know the participants real identity was myself and my colleague who was present for the session.

When transcribing I removed all references to specific names, cities – I replaced them with geographic regions (e.g. north east/south west), companies, actual ages – I replaced them with ranges (e.g. 20-25 years old).

The transcriptions were available to my project team members but not the originals.

Clear scope, explicit consent

I made the research scope clear – I am researching how the participant needs to carry out this goal of banning themselves from gambling using the system we are building.

I explained I am not a trained counsellor and so cannot legally, give advice or support about gambling activity. I made sure:

  • I got clear written informed consent
  • that they understood they were free to stop the research session at any moment
  • that they understood they could refuse to answer any question

The purpose of consent is to put the participant in the position of power – not to have them “exert” this power, but to show them they can trust you. You will do no harm.

During my interviews, I asked personal questions. The purpose was to understand how they would react if they were asked a similar quesiton during the registeration process.

To my surprise, participants were very willing to answer them – they knew this service would help them deal with their current situation.

The “value” proposition was clear to them.

Be patient

Like doing research with participans who have access needs, you also need to be more patient with participants.

Some may want to go off the research topics, and you need to be more patient and empathetic with them than in a less emotive situation.

When they cried we took a break.

Be silent

Your job is being the user researcher. Listening to the participant.

When dealing with difficult topics, this can often mean a lot of silence. You’re job is to be comfortable with awkward situations. That often means being uncomfortable (within reason) so that the participant is not.

Be comfortable with silence.

Address research sessions confusions (and iterate)

After doing 2 pilot studies on the project I found some participants seemed confused – they seemed to think *I* was doing psychology research into compulsive gambling.

I adapted my research interview preamble to make this explicit – going to the point of saying it was against the law for me to ask about the psychological effect of their activity.

I listened and then tried to bring the conversation back on topic – the topic I was researching was what compulsive gamblers needed from the website we were developing.

Provide aftercare

Once the “research”part of the session finished, I gave the person some time to gather their thoughts, and reflect. This was often just 4-5 minutes of silence where nobody spoke.

Once finished, I then provided them with signposting to gambling support signposting in their community.

Some people may not deal well with the realisation they were a compulsive gambler. Some were genuinely not aware of the support available.

So you need to provide them with signposting to professionals who can help.

The purpose of this support is to shorten the gap between the decision and action to get the support – don’t just provide a national resource.

I gave participant a small flier with information about support they could access local to them – a telephone number, a local support office.

This was not judgemental, it was to assist them in the event they made the decision to follow it.

Respect, don’t patronise or sympathise

The participants I spoke with, even though their lives were in terrible situations, didn’t to want my pity.

They were very interested in helping as they waned to help others in similar situations.

I tried to keep my distance in terms of sympathy. Give them a tissue, not a hug. When they cried we stopped for a while.

If you feel you are beyond your capabilities reassess. Don’t be afraid of asking more experienced colleagues for help.

For the researcher

It is very easy to forget about the impact of research on the researcher.

Normally we are researching light-hearted topics. They don’t effect us much.

This was not one of those cases. After a solid week of interviews, hearing about the effects of the participants gambling activity started to have an effect on me.

I expected to hear some difficult stories but I wasn’t prepared for the sheer number of them.

On reflection the input of the chartered psychologist professional minimised this.

Do no harm (to the researcher)

I was not a professional psychologist and so needed support too. The psychologist who advised me on how to insure my research minimised any effects on the participants also had a lot of good advice most practical being – expect to be effected by the research.

I was planning a large portion of my research to be qualititative interviews, with formative and summative usability testing.

The chartered psychologist reminded me of some good supports to put in place for myself and the participants:

  • designate a colleague(s) to speak to about it when the research effects you. Speak with them regularly
  • it is acceptable to talk to this colleague about your feelings or reactions to the data you find
  • it is not acceptable to identify participants in any way or talk about the person individually, or their individual circumstances

(Personally, I was lucky that I had someone at home to talk about how the research affected me. This was very helpful.)

It was helpful to have a colleague with me at times (acting as “note-taker”). Post-research session we spoke about what we’d just heard, and we’d deal with the situation

Final thoughts

While this may sound like a terrible experience, it was anything but that. It stretched my user-centred design research skills greatly, but led to good, actionable, ethical research which was used to build a service that had a positive impact on it’s users.

Looking back, I don’t think I’d have done anything differently, except maybe taken more breaks between interviews.