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Posted by on Feb 14, 2013

Looking for trust? Use your moral compass.

Looking for trust? Use your moral compass.

Let’s be clear: if you’re trying to channel ‘trustworthy’, as most contemporary brands are, then it’s best to avoid shady sales techniques. Surely that’s a given? Yet unsettling techniques persist in otherwise credible and legitimate which begs the questions: why such a short sighted outlook? And, who’s holding the moral compass in those companies?

In an era when many of the UK’s largest organisations are being held accountable for illegal behaviour in their ranks – News of the World’s phone hacking, UK parliamentary expenses scandal, Libor fraud – it might seem pedantic to consider the transgressions that fall on right side of the law. Nevertheless there are practices that are legal but demonstrate a lack of conscience and breed mistrust. Examples that spring quickly to mind are: in app purchasing for children’s games, dark patterns generally, and webmail advertising.

In-app purchasing is closely tied with two other digital media trends: freemium service models and one-click purchasing. These are all well and good until they enter the domain of children’s games where they are rife with ethical concerns. There are children who nag their parents relentlessly for premium content and there are those who crack their accounts and make unauthorised purchases: neither is good. Child friendly brands by their very nature need to be trustworthy, and that means finding appropriate ways of selling to children. [MS: 27/2/13] Since writing, Apple has just settled a suit by parents in the US who contended that Apple hadn’t made it clear enough that many ‘free’ apps came with hidden extras that children could purchase easily.

‘Dark patterns’ is a term coined by UX designer/blogger, Harry Brignull. He’s been publicising the shady practise of businesses using slights of hand within website interfaces to cross sell, upsell and get customers to do things unknowingly that they wouldn’t agree to consciously; he’s defined them as ‘user interfaces designed to trick people’. These are the kind of tricks that place optional add-ons into a shopping basket or use murky language in copy to mislead customers. What’s surprising about dark patterns is their use by well known reputable brands – brands with something to lose. According to darkpatterns.org businesses include the likes of RAC, Comet and dare I say it, Ryan Air.

My pet-peeve is Google’s robots ‘reading’ my mail to target the adverts that they sell to place around my email services. Not only do they get it spectacularly wrong, it’s an affront to established social mores: everyone knows you don’t read other people’s mail, no matter what sort of benefit you hope to derive from doing so.

Trust is an emotional response to the experiences we have with others. Some is instinctive, others learned, but there is no faster way to lose trust than to allow the kind of behaviour in your business that your own conscience would guide you against in your personal life. And therein lies the challenge: businesses – like people – need a code of ethics with established standards of integrity in all areas of business interactions; a moral compass if you will. Who’s holding yours?

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