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How to Be Evil (and Make it Work for You)

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Before Chris Nodder began his SXSW panel, "Evil by Design: Leading Customers Into Temptation," he slipped into a red jacket and unleashed a maniacal laugh. The user experience expert from Seattle was ready to reveal the ways companies use “evil” tactics to entice their customers. Of course, he didn’t mean truly being evil, just understanding more about the little tricks that companies pull when designing their products – and the human psychology triggers that make those tricks work.


Nodder shared some real-world examples of “evil” at work in known companies, assigning each pattern to one of the seven deadly sins. Here are some of his observations and what any company can learn about shaping consumer behavior.

Sloth: It's human nature to avoid doing any more work than absolutely necessary. That’s what motivates a company to trick customers into signing up for mailing lists using double negatives, knowing they’ll rush through online forms and not read them carefully. He says the number of signups for mailing lists when "don't not" is used is 66 percent higher than when the language is more clear. When sloth is done correctly, however, companies have done more than trick people into signing up for a newsletter – they will have reduced obstacles in a customer’s path.

Lesson: Make things easy.

Pride: Consumers will often spend more money for the illusion of a unique or important product. Nodder points to the Best Made Company, which commands high prices for its axes, trading on the impression of artistry and prestige.. Best Made axes are even packaged in "wood wool," a fancy way of saying sawdust. Pride positions a product to align with consumer’s values.

Lesson: Make the experience special.

Envy: When it comes to creating a feeling of exclusivity, take notes from the airlines, says Nodder. Collecting miles to achieve VIP status and earn rewards creates a divide between customers, encouraging those who haven't earned enough perks to keep on spending. Brands that use envy effectively create a sense of status and make people aspire to something.

Lesson: Make it elusive.  

Greed: Gamification uses our innate desire to "win" to make difficult tasks feel more fun. He points out that some mobile apps even use this technique to put their users to work. Some GPS tracking apps task customers with taking alternate driving routes to collect badges and points. The users think they're playing a game, but really they’re verifying the developer’s mapping data.

Lesson: Keep the user engaged.

Lust: While Nodder admits that lust is difficult to manipulate, he stresses the importance of reciprocation, and using emotion to change behavior. He used his own website as an example, where customers can download a sample chapter from his book, Evil By Design (June 2013, Wiley). When they've finished reading the excerpt, they are immediately prompted with a pre-written tweet, encouraging them to share what they've read (and even buy the full version.) Says Nodder, lust can transform desire into commitment.

Lesson: Defeat logic.

Anger: Harnessing anger can ignite passion and even help to solve problems. He points to Glassdoor’s anonymous reviews of current and former employers. The site takes advantage of nameless internet rage and puts funnels it toward something that’s both constructive (and profitable).

Lesson: Turn on the heat.

Gluttony: More is more, right? And company’s can learn a lot from how startup Humble Bumble, takes advantage of a consumer's burning desire for more. The gaming company offers packages at a pay-what-you-want price. However, paying more than the current average price earns users exclusive bonus content, encouraging them to pay more and more for much-wanted extra goodies. With a portion of Humble Bundle's profits go to charity, Nodder says the company uses it’s powers for a noble purpose.

Lesson: Keep them wanting more. 

Jacob Hall

Written By

Jacob Hall is a writer living and working in Austin, Texas. He writes about movies, books, games and technology.