Jakob Nielsen: ‘Evil’ design

This Guardian article from last year includes Jakob Nielsen discussing what he calls ‘evil design’, specifically in reference to the web:

“”Evil design is where they stop you from doing what you are trying to do, like putting an advert over the top of the page. That’s the wrong way to do it. Google has made billions by putting the ads where people do want them, rather than where they don’t want them.”

Evil design is perpetrated by people who are deliberately doing the wrong thing, and this harms everyone. Nielsen cites pop-up windows as an example. Users now expect pop-ups to be unwanted ads, and close them without looking at them. As a result, good designers can no longer use pop-up windows even when they would be a good solution.

“We now have to say: ‘Don’t put your help text in a pop-up window.’ It’s ruined it for everybody,” he adds.”

I feel this is rather simplistic (as did others around the time the article came out) but nevertheless, the idea of raising public awareness of design being used to restrict, manipulate and interfere with our behaviour is important, especially when it comes from someone with such a reputation in the field of usability and interaction design.


  1. Andy

    When I first read “Evil Design” I thought of a pet peeve of mine I encountered again today — obstructive landscape design. In a public space such as a university or a park, people traveling the same path every day will want to take the shortest path, even if that means straying off the paved walkway. At my university, that meant chaining off and/or planting hedges near the corners of buildings, so pedestrians would have to make square corners, rather than taking a naturally curved (and more direct) path around the corner.

    It seems the alternative, making paths that follow where people want to go, is unthinkable. Today I walked through a newly created park and while gentle curves exist in the pathways there, many of them curve in the opposite direction of the natural path through the park.

  2. Dan

    Thanks Andy, that’s an interesting example. It seems like with pedestrian-obstructing schemes it’s often done for aesthetic reasons rather than to reduce people’s speed (as with traffic calming, etc).

    It always amuses me to see the ‘natural’ paths muddily worn across an area of green space, compared with the often rectilinear or, as you say, oddly counter-curved paths that have been laid.

    Similarly to looking for patterns of dead flies on a car front end as a natural way to judge the relative drag coefficient of different design features, looking at the shortcuts people (and animals) will take if unrestricted perhaps ought to be more widely appreciated as a way of designing environments to work with their users, rather than against them.

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