On product validation through deception

By Rian

In How I Made $4000 Selling A Product I Didn’t Have one entrepreneur explains how his new startup deceived users into thinking the product already existed (even though it didn’t). They did this so that they could collect credit card details to validate whether or not users would actually pay for the product. You should really read the whole post, but here’s a key section:

It doesn’t feel good to deceive prospective customers (or anyone for that matter). I didn’t like this bit. Then again, is there really a big difference between this and in putting up a landing page to test a new idea? I don’t know. I think if your intention is right (i.e. your heart is in the right place), then this deception is more of a white lie.

Is this what it means to be a lean startup these days? It’s at worst fraud, and at best an extremely dark pattern. I get the need for validation before launching a product — I’m a big proponent of it. But the user-centered design and Lean UX methodologies both give us great ways to do validation in an ethical and honest way: through prototype testing with potential target customers.

Prototype testing helps us find out if a product is useful before we launch it — whether it has good utility as well as good usability. Sure, it doesn’t give us absolute validation on whether or not someone will actually pay for it, but that’s unfortunately part of the danger and excitement of creating software. Or are we really at the point where we agree with the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles when he said, “Profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception”? I hope not.

I just don’t think deception of any kind is ok, even if “your heart is in the right place”. This isn’t user-centered, it’s persuasion. And as Cennydd Bowles put it in The perils of persuasion:

What privileges the designer [or the entrepreneur] to dictate desired behaviour? And since we’re for hire, does that mean we’re ethical relativists, bending people toward whatever agenda lines our pockets?

Profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception.

This isn’t really a post about one entrepreneur’s methods. I’m more interested in where the line is here, and I think this is crossing a very dangerous one. Where does this approach end? At what point will we, as users, constantly have to worry that every time we enter our credit card details online it might be for a product that doesn’t actually exist? Even if it isn’t fraud, that’s not the type of relationship I think we should build with our customers.

Incidentally, I recently watched Mike Monteiro’s excellent talk at Webstock called How Designers Destroyed the World. It’s embedded below — please watch it. But I’ll close with this quote from the talk that I find very relevant to this discussion:

We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we love the cleverness of our ideas.

We’re responsible for the work we put into the world. We always have a choice to be honest or deceitful. And we have to consider how those choices add up in the long term. That’s our job.