The Era of Benevolent Deception

New technology can be great for customers – sometimes too great. In an era when companies strive to “amaze” and “delight” their customers, they sometimes are forced to de-amaze and un-delight the user experience because their customers have a hard time adjusting to the change.  Consider….

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Turbo Tax is able to return results in a fraction of a second. That would be awesome, except it turns out that people don’t trust something that is that awesome. I mean, how do you calculate taxes that quickly? There must have been a mistake.

So the Turbo Tax developers created a series of animations that tell users that the program is “look(ing) over every detail” while an animation shows a tax form lighting up line after line.  The animation is really bogus – its only reason for existence is to make you feel confident in the results. As the animation plays, you think to yourself: “look at that animation – this Turbo Tax thing is working hard!”.

This is a form of “benevolent deception“, a term coined by University of Michigan researcher Eytan Adar and his co-researchers from Microsoft, which is a practice of designing experiences that “deceive” users but leave them better off in the process.

Here’s another story, courtesy of my friend John.

John was a young dude working as an engineer for ROLM. If you’re of a certain age, you possibly had one of their phones on your office desk.  One of the things John would do is test the components of new phone designs by swabbing on the most damaging ingredients likely to corrupt an office phone: a mixture of Diet Coke and guacamole, which in my mind raises the danger inherent in office Cinco de Mayo parties.

ROLM came out with a new phone, and one of their proudest achievements was how light the handset was. The engineers labored on the most innovative designs and latest materials to create a super lightweight handset, designed to be high quality while reducing fatigue during long calls. And with pride, they released the greatest phone they had ever made to their customers. And their customers hated it.

The customers picked up the phone, felt its incredible lightness, looked at one another and said: “this phone is really light. It must be cheap. Why is ROLM selling us these cheap phones?”.

And so – and I am not making this up – ROLM had to open up all of their phones and glue in a lead weight to make their handsets heavier. This is benevolent deception in practice, albeit one that likely caused some engineers to drown their sorrows in Diet Coke and guac.

Here’s another one…

The company I work for, Mitek, is the company that makes it possible for you to deposit a check by taking a picture of it with your mobile phone. Over 5,500 banks use our technology. If you use mobile banking, then you’ve probably used our software. It’s pretty awesome.

But it turns out that consumers only want so much “awesome” when they need to deposit a check. When you use the service via your mobile banking app, you are asked to enter the amount of the check. The question I sometimes get is, “why do I have to type in the amount – can’t you just read it automatically?”  And the answer to that is “yes, but..”

While there are other reasons why banks implement our software this way, one reason is psychological: it turns out that customers want to feel an element of control/involvement when they’re going through the process. So banks find it works better to ask customers to manually enter the check amount, much like they did during the horse-and-buggy days of branch visits and deposit slips.


  • I said “type the amount” in this post. But no typewriters are involved.
  • You might think you’re reading this on a “web page”, when in fact it’s not a page at all.

When we humans are confronted by new technologies, we find it helpful to relate them to the modalities they’re replacing. To help people understand the web, the concept of a “page” was used.

This is an important consideration in your own design. The era of rapid change is changing a little too rapidly for wide swaths of people. Smart designers look for ways to make their innovations more understandable.

It is a common conceit for companies (tech companies, in particular) to assume their customers are as stoked about change as the company. It is a pitfall for new designs and if you don’t respect it, you might find yourself one day sitting in a room, gluing little weights to your latest creation.

Good luck!

P.S. Cool people sign up to receive my posts via email. They know that their email address will never be shared with others, get about one post per week, and hopefully feel a little smarter as a result. And that’s no deception, benevolent or otherwise.

The signup form is on the right, at the top.