Nathalie Nahai: Persuasive Design and Ethical Business

The old way of business has no appeal to younger generations. Dark patterns and unethical design are turn-offs to them. It's time to reshape your business around values and purpose.

Nathalie Nahai’s background in human behaviour, web design and the arts gives her a unique vantage point from which to examine the complex challenges we face today. In the seventh episode of the NEXT – SHOW series 4, she explored how to design businesses and products that use persuasive design ethically, and how to embed values in your company.

Watch the complete episode

What is persuasive design?

“It’s speaking to the ways we design different experiences for people to elicit certain behaviours,” says Nahai. “So, just as you put lights at a road crossing, to tell people when to walk, you can design technology to encourage certain behaviours, and create barriers to others.”

And, of course, these powers can be used for both good and evil. How easy is it to spot when your persuasive design is drifting into unethical territory?

“Anything that ends up becoming coercive, where you encourage people to engage in behaviours that they don’t choose, that aren’t good for them – generally speaking, that’s an unethical example of these sorts of practices,” she says.

“A good litmus test for this is ‘would I feel comfortable if this user experience was given to my child, my mum, or my partner?’ If the answer is no, that’s a good sign there’s something happening that shouldn’t be happening.”

And then? “Then the question needs to be, what do we have to address to make sure we’re using persuasive design in an ethical way?”

Design for trust

Relationships are built on honesty, and they need to be based on trust. So, if you want to build a successful, sustainable relationship, people need to know exactly what they’re signing up for — and to be able to trust you on that. And businesses are facing two generational cohorts for whom this is one of the most defining factors in their interaction with businesses.

“We’re seeing this shift from the previous generation who were either unaware of these issues, or who felt unable to speak out,” says Nahai. “62% of Gen Z prefer to buy from sustainable brands. 40% of Millennials will select a company with sustainable policies over a better-paid job at a company that doesn’t have that. If businesses or brands want to attract these people as customers or staff, they need to meet these profound needs for a greater environmental and social conscience.”

Partly that’s about purpose and meaning. “One of the themes that kept coming up again and again when I was researching my book, Business Unusual, was about embedded values. If the company doesn’t have explicit values or a purpose at the heart of their business, they’re not going to attract people to the business. Over half of employees have spoken up publicly to support – or criticise – their employer’s practices.”

Design for values

The surge in B Corp certifications is a reflection of that need to embed values very deeply in the business. It shows that, if you can be a business that engages with the need to put those values in both what you do and how you do it, you will be more likely to attract folks with those values, she suggests.

But how do you get there? You need to start with mapping out a company’s values. Then you work out how they might fit with the values of the people you’re trying to attract. That then must be extended to company culture, to branding, even to how you manage remote groups. You need to create spaces for more honest feedback. Usefully, in the current period of dramatic economic uncertainty, this process, outlined in her book, also looks at rupture and repair. That’s a whole set of ways of handling problems in times of great economic anxiety.

“We can future-proof our businesses by creating businesses that are embedded in a set of values with integrity towards a larger purpose,” says Nahai.

Hug the values system

“Most of us would prefer simpler solutions in an uncomfortably complex time. But, if you look at the scale and interconnectedness of the problems we face, if we are to have any hope at all of developing a more flourishing regenerative system, we need tools that can cover as much territory as possible in an as coherent way as possible,” she says.

She offers a free values map online, built with Dr Kiki Leutner of Goldsmith’s in London, which takes the framework of human values and creates a questionnaire that shows up how values manifest in your business. And it gives you insight and advice into the values you uphold and cherish, and how to express them across your business. Crucially, it then shows you examples of other brands that share your values.

“It takes something less tangible and creates a roadmap to get you started on your journey,” she says.

The Safety Dance

Deep at the heart of this process are a couple of vital values. The first is safety. Internally within the business, safety is predicated on a sense of trust with the person you’re working with. But psychological trust across the whole team is also critical.

It takes longer to build trust online than it does in person, according to research. So, you need to work harder to build that trust. Invite them to share their expertise, take the time to check in on their emotional state. Give them the space to feedback, and mirror that feedback to them, so they know you’ve understood.

The personality traits of your team members can have a massive impact on the way they need to be treated. And beware of deploying tools that can destroy trust, like using surveillance software to monitor their work remotely.

“If you want excellence, trust is fundamental,” says Nahai.

The path to consumer trust

To build that trust in a consumer way, you have to think about integrity. Can you do what you say you’re doing? Are you showing the four “c”s?

  • Have you shown a clear commitment to your values?
  • Are you congruent in word and deed?
  • Are you consistent over time?
  • Is your position coherent?

Self-determination is vital

Another essential principle is self-determination. “The framework of self-determination is absolutely vital,” says Nahai. “If we can meet it over our lifetime, we feel more integrity in ourselves. It gives us a greater feeling of well-being.”

Delivering this means meeting three of our deep psychological needs:

  • agency: a sense of autonomy and control
  • competence: giving people the skill and ability to reach their goals
  • relatedness: our desire to belong and have fulfilling emotional relationships with people

If you get that together with trust, you’re off to a really great start.

This is a summary of an interview with Nathalie Nahai conducted by Ina Feistritzer. It was broadcast on the NEXT Show on 25th August 2022. You can catch up with Natalie and her work on Twitter, LinkedIn and the web.