When we first examine the developer’s responsibility to the user, it is easy to say that we should be turning down projects that we simply do not believe in. Selling products that the developer believes are a scam or harmful to the user’s health or filling the internet with repetitive pseudo-science seems irresponsible to the user at first glance.
Upon further examination, you will see that limiting the content that is available to the end users based on your personal morals is actually a separate question of responsibility to yourself and your own desire for a perfect web experience. Of course, there are certain aspects of morality that transcend personal morality, and most of these are covered through the legal system. Refusing to create sites that break the law, such as human trafficking sites, is your responsibility to a community beyond the virtual.
Your responsibility to the user is not to limit what they can and cannot access, but to protect their power to create their own boundaries. This needs to be addressed on a design, content, and development level.
Design and the User: Dark Patterns
Dark patterns are various design techniques that are meant to trick the user into increasing conversions on a website. Popular methods include disguising advertisements or paid services to increase the likelihood that a user will click on them or using confusing language to trick a user to opt into services, such as an email subscription or a paid version of a program, that they may not necessarily want.
Dark patterns have become so ingrained in design that it can be difficult to extract them from a website. Many companies may feel like they are losing their competitive edge as their conversion rate falls after dark patterns are removed from their website.
However, high conversion rates with dissatisfied customers who feel like they have been tricked by you and your client will not lead to the long-term success of any company. Designers should aim to be transparent, making the user interface for their websites clear and easy to understand.
Content and the User: Black Hat Techniques
Modern SEO is divided by the concept of black hat techniques vs. white hat techniques. Black hat techniques involve using deception to get your pages to rank higher with search engines. They are common SEO techniques, such as keyword stuffing and using false linkbacks, and many companies may feel like a content developer simply does not understand SEO if they do not utilize these techniques.
White hat techniques involve publishing high quality, related, researched content on a website. It is much more time consuming than black hat techniques and tends to be slower to increase search engine rankings. However, it allows the user the chance to view the relevant content they are seeking.
There are also many borderline content practices that can be considered deceptive and dis-empowering to the end user. These include ghost writing with the intention to make it look like the company you are writing for knows more about a subject than they actually do, writing with an authoritative tone when you are unsure of a topic, or recycling information that may be wrong or misleading.
Development and the User: Looping and Spyware
It may be easiest for a developer to recognize and avoid deceptive techniques in their work. This includes things such as adding code intended to trap a user on a certain page by disabling the back button, creating a loop, or creating pop-ups. Other techniques may include automatically subscribing a user for a service or friend-spamming without permission.
It is important to respect when the user wants to end their experience at the site you are working on. Refusing to allow them a clear and easy exit takes away the power from the user, which ultimate frustrates your users.
While development teams may have a responsibility to their clients, it is also important for them to recognize their basic responsibility to the end users. This responsibility should be defined as finding ways to protect and increase user power through clear, transparent design and development techniques that do not rely on deception.