top of page
  • Writer's pictureDr. Ja-Nae Duane

Designing Ethical Nudges for E-Commerce Sites

Woman on couch overwhelmed by online shopping
Image generated by Revolution Factory using MidJourney

It’s a random Tuesday. You’re sitting on the couch with your laptop and you’re hunting for the perfect new doo-dad for your home. The TV is likely on and you’re probably a bit distracted. As you peruse the e-commerce site, you find the item you’re looking for pairs well with several other items. You find that if you buy more than one, you can score a deal.

But you better act fast because this is a limited time offer. And wait, there’s only two left in stock! Before you know it, the item (and likely others) is in your cart and, wow, there’s a bunch of cool accessory items at checkout. And the default shipping rate is already checked for you. All you have to do is push that button…

Wait, what just happened?! Were you paying attention? Or were you a victim of digital nudging?

Digital nudging is a common e-commerce design practice using subtle cues and manipulations to covertly “nudge” you towards making a purchase. Most of these tricks go completely unnoticed by the average user. In fact, companies are counting on it. Tactics can range from upselling and cross-selling to adding items to carts automatically or offering “last minute deals" at checkout.

Think about it, in a public forum, individuals can be held to account by their peers. But what about when no one is watching? When it comes to e-commerce companies, digital nudging is “baked in” as a part of the design. How do we combat this coercion if we don’t even notice it? And even if we do manage to get wise to the tricks, how do we hold a faceless company to account?

Is it possible for an e-commerce site to be ethically designed? What if we removed digital nudging and information like price was displayed up-front? What if we removed things like cookie tracking and streamlined the site to be direct, simple, and free of ethically questionable tactics?

In a pilot study for Bentley University, I examined the website of a Fortune 100 company and proposed a re-design based on ethical principles that discourage digital nudging. I presented the prototype to a team of ten web design experts, who evaluated the changes and gave feedback based on interviews.

My key research question was: How and why are designers of e-commerce platforms best positioned to adopt more ethical nudges within their website design?

To get answers, I first had to look at key areas of digital nudging and flesh them out into specifications for our e-commerce prototype. For example, what would be the effect on the consumer if we removed cookie tracking from our site? Or how would the consumer react if we removed last-minute shopping deals from the checkout page?

I applied the specifications to the original interface of the site in the form of triggers where a digital nudging element was present in the design. Then I produced a prototype site with more ethical designs in place.

I gathered a panel of ten design experts and interviewed them around three key areas: the standardized approach they used when designing websites, reviews of the preliminary site and questions on the intent/use of digital nudging areas, and feedback on the prototype site.

From the interviews, three clear themes emerged:

  1. Nudging is a standard practice in UX design

  2. Design is not without ethical conflicts

  3. Designers see themselves as champions of user’s needs

Each of the participants acknowledged digital nudging as “business as usual” in the design community. Most of them recognized the nudging practices in the original site and admitted these methods were part of their most basic training. Some even noted that despite knowing the questionable ethics of these practices, their jobs could be at risk if they didn’t employ them.

One of the recurring arguments that came up during interviews was one of resignation: With cross-selling and upselling as a standard sales practice, it was hard to see how any e-commerce company would employ ethical guardrails that might affect the bottom line.

While I presented this ethical design prototype for consideration, it’s difficult to imagine a sudden sea change in the standard business practices of e-commerce sites. But it is a call to both the designer and the consumer to begin to pay attention to these subtle cues. For the designer, it is a call to entertain ethical concerns in their work and look for opportunities to employ more equitable choices in their design.

For you, the consumer, it’s a call to be more alert and not sleepwork through your online life. Forewarned is forearmed. But you better act quickly, this opportunity won’t be around for much longer.

Learn more about ethical e-commerce and how to make informed decisions by reading our research. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me or my team, or connect with me on LinkedIn and Twitter to keep the conversation going!

bottom of page