The thoughts of Matthew Crist, a designer in Boston.

Jul 15, 2015

On Kabletown, and Empathy

You and your partner have decided to take the next step and cohabitate. Since neither of you can live without having access to House of Cards, you decide to shoulder the burden of signing up for internet access.

You head over to the Kabletown website, and can very quickly sign up for this new service and after completing your order are shipped a container of electronics and are up and running in relatively short order.

After many months, your relationship sours and you move out.

Heartbroken and distraught, you realize that you need to cancel your internet service, or the person that broke your heart will have access to all that amazing content, and you can’t let that happen.

In tears you go to the Kabletown website to cancel your service. Surely, since you were able to sign up online, you would cancel online too, right?

You quickly discover that the only way to cancel is to call them. You get your phone and dial the prescribed number. A robot answers and asks you to stay on the line for English or to press “1” for Spanish. You wait.

After a couple of seconds, the next menu read aloud to you. At this time, you are no longer sobbing over the death of your relationship. Mild weeping is all, but you were distracted for a moment, and think that you’ve missed the cancel option. In reality, it’s under option 3, but they label it as “Account changes”. You correctly guess on the second read through.

As the cold robotic voice begins reading the next level of the phone menu you remember that one time at that one place and begin sobbing again. You think about hanging up to get your shit together, but you’ve come this far and you’re not giving up easily. You’re stronger than that.

After the read the read through, you make it to the cancellations department (or the customer retention at all costs department as they call it).

“How can I help you?” asks the person on the other end of the phone.

At this point, it is important to remember that somewhere within Kabletown, someone has probably written a user story along the lines of “As the business, I want to make it extremely fucking difficult to cancel service”.

“I’d like to cancel my service” you respond while clearly distraught.

“I’m sorry to hear that. May I ask why?”

“My relationship has recently disappeared into an empty black hole of despair and loneliness”.

“Sorry to hear that. Did you know Kabletown has the very best internet service in all the land? So awesome it is, that it might even heal your relationship.”

This back and forth continues for 15 minutes or so, when the cable rep finally relents and agrees to cancel your service.


We call this situation a dark pattern. Dark patterns in experience design are patterns that are designed purposefully to trick users into completing tasks that are a benefit to a user and impede them from completing tasks that are not in the business’ best interest.

This is an example of the roach motel dark pattern. It’s easy to get in, but nearly impossible to escape.

The usage of dark patterns has increased in recent years, with the roach motel concept being the most common pattern that users will encounter.

Dark patterns are harmful to companies as they lead to negative press and social postings. They’re basically the middle finger of experience design and show a complete lack of empathy towards users.

We define empathy as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

When we are designing, we need to account for empathy within our process. Customers are the most important piece of any business. Without them, businesses fail, yet we spend so little time thinking about them when designing our products.

Thinking about the context in which a user has found their way to a product over all of the other ones in the market can help designers understand the users unerlying motivations. Users of all motivations are in the market. Some are trying to accomplish the basic tasks of life, like paying bills or finding the time of the next movie showing. Other customers may find themselves using a product or service in a time of crisis.

Eric Meyer has spent a lot of time thinking about designing for crisis. These customers’ motivations don’t care about the realities of business. They just need help. In Eric’s case, he was a parent in need of basic information to get his daughter medical as quickly as possible.

Design process needs to account for many possible customer motivations and uncovering these requires a lot of research. Not the normal pouring over analytics to see if customers visted a page or clicked a button, but in the field research watching customers interacting with products and lots of interviews to begin to get in the mindset of the customer.

During this research phase, designers can begin to empathize with their customers, which will lead to a greater understanding of who the customer really is, and what drives them to make the decisions that they’ve made.

Some of the best products show a deep understanding of the customer within their design. Companies that prioritize the level of research required to get to this understanding will be the ones with greatest chance of success.