Essays & Articles


Evil by Design (My Foreword)

FOREWORD: Evil by Design

Don Norman

Foreword to

Nodder, C. (2013). Evil by Design: Interaction design to lead us into temptation. New York: Wiley.  (Evil by Design at Amazon.)

Sloth, Pride, Envy, Greed, Lust, Anger, Gluttony. What? I’m supposed to design for these traits? As a human-centered designer, I should be repelled by the thought of designing for such a list. What was Chris Nodder thinking? What was his publisher thinking? This is evil, amplified.

Although, come to think of it, those seven deadly sins are human traits. Want to know how people really behave? Just read the law books. Start with one of the most famous set of laws of all, the Ten Commandments. Every one of those commandments is about something that people actually did, and then prohibiting it. All laws are intended to stop or otherwise control human behavior. So, if you want to understand real human behavior, just see what the laws try to stop. The list of seven deadly sins provides a nice, tidy statement of fundamental human behavior, fundamental in the sense that from each of the deadly sins, one can derive a large list of less deadly ones.

But why should design be based on evil? Simple: Starting with evil means starting with real human behavior. This doesn’t mean that the result is evil: It means that understanding what each sin represents adds to an understanding of people. And good design results from good understanding. This is Chris Nodder’s great insight: Human frailty provides a great learning experience, illustrative examples that teach fundamental principles. And just as all fundamental principles can be used for good or evil, Nodder’s principles can be used in either way.

There are obvious benefits to society in using the lessons learned from the sins to enhance design processes for the good of humankind. But there are also benefits to understanding how those who are less scrupulous than you or me use these same principles for nefarious purposes, defrauding people, or perhaps just causing them to buy things they do not need at a price they cannot afford. What possible benefits? The more the tactics are understood, the more readily they can be identified and resisted, fought against, and defeated.

Nodder has done a superb job of distilling and explaining. Fun to read, insightful to contemplate. Maybe he did too good a job–I am now far better equipped to do evil than I was before I read the book. But I’m also better equipped to notice when others apply these principles to me (and they do, many times a day, as I browse the Internet, click links, or wander the streets of my little town in the Philistine area called Silicon Valley, resisting temptations of greed, lust, and gluttony as I watch the natives feeding at outdoor cafes, buying at fancy glass-encased stores selling tantalizing electronic sin toys, passing the offices of venture capitalists along the way, with fancy, unimaginably expensive and powerful automobiles parked in front (in a city where the speed limit is 25 miles per hour, and it is rare to go even that fast). Which sins are on constant display? Every one of them.

The seven sins are all around us, easy to spot. But the designs that apply the underlying behavioral forces that underpin the sins are harder to discern. That’s why we need this book.

Thank you Chris for providing insight coupled with fun. Teaching deep insights into human behavior together with valuable guidelines and frameworks for applying them is a blessing–60 blessings, one for each design pattern that Nodder has derived from the seven sins. Learning from sins. Pleasure from sins. A wonderful combination.

So yes, buy the book. No, don’t download it for free: That would be sinful.

Evil by Design: Interaction design to lead us into temptation