Noted industrial designer Dieter Rams insisted that good design is honest. He formulated this idea in the sixth of his Ten Principles of good design:
It does not make a product more innovative, powerful or valuable than it really is. It does not attempt to manipulate the consumer with promises that cannot be kept.
Elsewhere, Rams explains that his beef with dishonest design is that it violates his fundamental conviction that good design means setting the priorities of users always ahead of the priorities of designers. Dishonesty, he thought, was a kind of shortcut that designers use to get users to accept things without engaging in the painstaking effort required for truly good design.
It was with this notion in mind that I read Kaveh Wadell's piece in The Atlantic about the use of deception in some prominent apps. For example, Wadell discovered that a progress bar in the popular tax app TurboTax was fake. That is, it was merely a timer rather than an representation of the time the app took to check for tax deductions:
The animation was fixed. It didn’t appear to be communicating with the site’s servers at all once it began playing—and every TurboTax user saw the same one, which always took the same amount of time to complete.
It was explained to him that the deception was beneficial to users: It was put in place to assure users that TurboTax was working hard, as evidenced by the delay, even when the response from the service was nearly instantaneous. Users did not trust an immediate response: "Wow, that was fast! Did it really search for all possible deductions?"
So construed, the deception could be counted as honest according to Rams's principle. After all, it does not exaggerate the power or value of TurboTax. Neither does it make false promises. All deductions are considered, with or without the superfluous delay.
Nevertheless, the tactic would seem to violate Rams's justification for honesty. Perhaps the deception also serves more selfish ends, as Wadell points out. Making the construction of tax returns seem effortful is in the interests of TurboTax's providers. The harder it seems, the better customers will feel about paying for the service.
Construed in this way, the fake progress bar seems like an example of designers putting their own priorities ahead of their users'.
This case is an interesting one for at least a couple of reasons. First, it illustrates a gap between Dieter Rams's principle of honesty and his motivation for it. Second, it leaves us with the question: Did TurboTax make the right design decision here?