I enjoy Facebook, but I find some of the available apps increasingly annoying. Aside from the fact that many of them are pointless, I’m really disturbed by the tactics they frequently employ to make themselves ubiquitous.

One of the apps that, in a general sense, I actually like is an app that lets me rate and review movies, share my opinions on films, and read about the opinions of others. It includes a “Movie Compatibility Test” which tells me how close my taste is to my buddies’, based on comparing our ratings for some 50-odd movies. It alerts me every time one of my friends has taken the quiz, so I can go check how well we matched up. I love movies, and all this sounds pretty cool. The problem is…

Every time I want to see the results of someone’s test – no matter if it’s the first time I’ve checked, or I’ve seen the results dozens of times already – it makes me go through this screen which is designed to get me to invite more friends to take the quiz (and thus sign up for the app). If I’m being generous, I’d say this design is trying to coerce, but more often I think it’s designed to trick.

Facebook App

The main thing I want to accomplish when I come to this page is to see the results of someone’s test. After all, that’s what the link I clicked on to get here promised. This page has pre-selected some people that it will invite, if I click on either of the buttons that provide the most obvious path to seeing the results – the buttons that say “Continue to Results.” It is possible to see the results without inviting more people, if you click on the small, subtle link that says “Skip to Results,” up in the right hand corner. Did you see it? It doesn’t even really look much like a link. It’s even less noticeable when you see it in the context of the whole page.

It takes constant vigilance to use this feature of the app without accidentally inviting your friends to subscribe. Since it’s a feature that will definitely inspire return visits, you have to be paying close attention every time. If you feel in the least bit distracted, tired, or impatient, there’s a good chance that you’ll be so focused on your goal of seeing the results that you’ll just click on the most obvious call-to-action, and before you know it you’ve spammed a bunch of your friends. This happened to me the other day, even though I was already a long-time user of the app.

As an added bonus, since it randomly selects the subset of contacts to invite, I had no way of knowing who I had spammed. A couple people mentioned it to me that day, though, which spurred some discussions of the sneaky design that inspired this behavior. This kind of thing is of particular interest among my colleagues, because we spend pretty much all of our time thinking about usability, information architecture, and user-centered design. So, of course we have strong feelings about designs that seem to wield conventions of usability against us like a weapon. These kinds of practices bring the concept of “viral media” back to its infectious roots.

In one conversation with a coworker, I referred to this deliberate use of user experience to manipulate users as “disinformation architecture.” He quickly found a blog with that name, but unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with this idea (so I’m not going to link to it here). I think the author of that blog just thought it was an edgy-sounding name for a blog. That doesn’t mean I can’t write about it here, though. So, I’m going to call out disinformation architecture where I see it. Because it really bugs the crap out of me.