s4e04: You can’t say no 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Yes, the blank newsletter episode was a mis-send. Sorry about that. I’ll blame a combination of the keyboard, a lack of coffee, not being awake and the default action being send, not cancel/save. Anyway.

9:50am on Monday, February 27 2017.

1.0 You can’t say no

I can’t point to the exact moment, but at some point after the second Internet boom, and definitely during the First Great Mobile App Explosion, it became increasingly clear that product managers and designers were getting very excited about things like cognitive psychology and persuasion. Here we are now in 2017, and it feels like it’s increasingly rare for an interaction with an app or website to let the user simply say: “no”.

There’s an easy reason for this because we like easy explanations: digital and interactive lets us measure things. We choose what we want to measure, and then we change things so that what we measure moves in the way we want it to move. Most of the things we’re concerned (as a species? As a post-capitalist neo-liberal society that’s optimized itself into rewarding and needing short-term gain?) about, we want to move Up and To The Right, which generally means that they’re increasing because we like numbers to get bigger. There is probably a cognitive psychology paper on why we like numbers to get bigger, along with a whole host of other papers that have failed to replicate the effect.


Because of this, because of things we *can* measure (and because of things we *can’t* measure or choose *not* to measure), it’s easy (I think!) for us to design ourselves and our artifacts into blind spots.

One easy example: mobile apps like it if you turn on notifications. By turning on notifications, that app has a chance to get your attention (which, we’re reminded, is increasingly the only thing we have left to choose what to do with) when you’re not using it. Everything wants your attention. Our wise and benificent leaders, those OS designers who hold more and more power over the interactions that we repeat every minute, every hour, every day, decided that maybe it’s not such a good idea to let apps send notifications to us by default. So they have to ask.

The polite way of asking, of course, is to a) ask nicely, and b) let the person you’re asking decline.

That won’t, and doesn’t, do, in today’s stupendously competitively landscape where if you write the wrong copy in your notification permission dialog you will literally lose your job, your healthcare, the respect of all your peers and the invitation to that conference you’ve been angling to speak at for so long and where you thought you might have a conference hook-up[0].

No, these days, everyone – your peers, your boss and your boss’s boss and those random people who’re going to shit all over your work on Dribble or Hacker News or Hey Let Me Just Slide Into Your Mentions – knows that you don’t get ahead by letting users say no. Your options, when you’ve written that dialog and when the user sees them are: “Sure!” and “Maybe later!”

I mean, the first designer who did this figured out (and presumably that their conversion and engagement rates went *way* up for the thing that was requested that resulted in “Sure!”. And other people noticed and then someone went and actually read a book about things that have happened in the past, and actually *read* it, not just read the link on Brain Pickings or just the first paragraph or even just the headline on Fast Company about how This Amazing Whatever Can X Your Y, and remembered: hey, there’s that sales and persuasion technique where you “get to yes” by literally denying the person you’re talking to the ability to say no.

Remember: we’re mute in modal dialogs. You don’t have a voice. You only have actions. You cannot say No. You can only choose “Maybe Later!”. If you’re lucky, your choice of Maybe Later comes with no additional emotional inflection, not even an exclamation mark or an emoji.

So. You can’t say no any more. You can’t be definitive. You can only say yes, or… maybe yes sometime in the future. Your only other actions are, maybe: delete the app? And you think to yourself, okay, I’m a bit annoyed that this stupid punk-ass app presumes to talk to me in this faux-friendly, fucking *cheeky* manner and I’m the one who’s paying something stupid like *a thousand dollars* and I own this goddamn phone (though the EFF and iFixIt will disagree because you’re not truly Free) and yes, maybe I didn’t pay for any of the labor that went into creating this app but really you’re going to sit there and *not let me say no*.

Well that feels like a bit of a shitty bargain, especially when everyone else is doing it to me.

It’s not like it’s easy to say no in the first place. But now, there’s a whole class of interactions that thanks to This One Easy Hack About Getting Your Users To Say Yes (Clue: It’s Called Denying Them The Ability To Say No), you… can’t say no anymore?

I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t sound particularly healthy to me. It’s as if you’d get a Falling Down moment, but it’s that one person who hasn’t deleted Uber yet who finally gets one more request to, I don’t know, turn on location services for Uber otherwise Uber won’t deliver a zero-hours contract worker car within three minutes powered by software built in a misogynistic environment, and finally decides: *fuck this* and, I don’t know, bad things happen and the US executive and administration remains silently mum on someone being shot again.

If I were smarter and wittier, I’d come up with a better name for this than The Tragedy Of Our Psychological Commons.

It’s not in any app’s interest to be kind, because some other app is going to come in like a complete dick, shit all over you because we have brains that have a certain architecture and are susceptible to certain things and everything’s okay because for now everything’s going up and to the right until, well, we hit a wall.

I used to write a lot about empathy and software and how it frustrated me that technology wasn’t kinder. It still isn’t. Now I’ve noticed that it’s getting harder to say no to software. (Not that it was ever that easy, I suppose).

I suppose someone like Bogost will say, contra Kevin Kelly, is that technology does want to go up and to the right, and it will only go up and to the right for the tangible things it thinks it can measure. It can’t measure the multivariate toll on psyche and mental health of a gajillion interactions that slowly chip away at agency. Google Analytics doesn’t have a tab for that. We’re not interested in solving problems like that. We only measure what we want to measure, and we only create tools for the things that we’re incentivized to measure.

(In that respect, I’m impressed by the countries that have even thought about counting things like breast milk production in GDP. I mean, at this point in today’s newsletter you’d be surprised if I’m even happy with the prospect of GDP in the first place (hah! yes let’s just measure the number of dollars of things!) and yes, I suppose *a* measurement is better than *no* measurement — sometimes) but Jesus Christ.)

Anyway. I quipped on Twitter that it’d be nice to talk to a psychologist about current patterns in app design like the Pattern Of Not Letting Someone Say No and ask: hey, how many of these design patterns would be abusive behaviour in a human relationship? I leave it to the readers to speculate as to my position on this point.

OK. It’s 10:16am. I have like a billion things I have to do today, and some of them are super important and some of them are really really important like: how do you design an organization that can deliver the best healthcare for Californians.

(Note: not how do you *design and deliver* the best healthcare for Californians, but how do you set up the organization and make sure that organization can succeed when it’s embedded in… legacy management and management principles? An idle thought: I get invited in (deployed with prejudice, might be a better phrase) to “fix” legacy technology replacement and modernization projects, but it strikes me that legacy *organization* replacement and modernization doesn’t… get as much attention? Or it does and it’s just regular management consultancy and  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)

[0] You know these things aren’t good, but you should also know you’re doing the best you can

Oh, and yes.

Thank you for all the notes about the inadvertent newsletter.

You can.