Ethics and Emotion in Controlled Experiments

Users interest are relentlessly changing all the time and their attention span are as short as they have ever been.  Given this companies are constantly thinking of new ways to maintain engagement with their users.  Sometimes that comes in the form of change with their product and how the user interacts with them.  It’s understood that with every potential change, whether major or minor, testing should always be involved.  Not only to ensure it works works from a technical perspective but also ensure it achieves the desired goal or effect. One effective way a lot of companies are using to ensure proper testing is done is with a method called A/B testing.

According to Optipedia, A/B testing is an experiment where two or more variants of a user interface are shown to users at random, and statistical analysis is used to determine which variation performs better for a given conversion goal. [Optipedia]

Figure 1 – With A/B testing there are two (or more) variants. Variants A (control) and a variant B (variation) are nearly identical user interfaces with the exception of one variation. This variation can be as small as the labeling of a checkout button from “shop now” to “buy now” or as big as the manipulation of a feature functionality.

It’s easy to see how effective A/B testing can be with its controlled test and comparative analytical data however the general practice used by companies raise some ethical questions.  I honestly was surprised to find out how often companies I use on a regular basis, Google, Amazon, Instagram, perform A/B testing on its products.  They are performed all the time and most of the time the users are unaware of it.  User agreements aside, this ongoing testing is essentially done without the users explicit agreement to participate and the lack understanding on the goals and objectives of companies/test and what potential impact the testing could have on the user is troubling.

For instance, in March 2014, Facebook conducted an emotional response test that included  close to a million of its users without their knowledge. During this emotional contagion experiment, the social platform gave some the test users a positive newsfeed while others received a negative newsfeed. The study, published in collaboration with researchers from Cornell University, found that users with negative newsfeeds posted more negative words, and those with positive newsfeeds posted more positive words.  While the results are not surprising, the duplicitous nature in which they performed their experiment and the possible emotional impact it could have on its user is alarming and unethical.  You can find more details on 10 other user experiments conducted by Facebook during 2014 on at Forbes.

In 2012, due to the growing toxic behavior in their community, Riot games tested a new chat feature in their immensely popular multiplayer online battle area (MOBA) game, League of Legends. Their objective wasn’t to eliminate toxic behavior from the games, as that would be near impossible, but to protect players from the harm of the disruptive behaviors from some members. In many online multiplayer games, you are able to chat (text or voice) as you play the game: with only people on your team, party chat or with everyone in the game, cross team chat.  This testing, without the players knowledge, consisted of a variant with the cross team chat functionality disabled by default. The feature was still available the game but the players had to manually turn it on via the menu settings. After analyzing the results from the test, they found a 30 percent swing from negative messages to positive ones even while actual chat activity remained the same.  You can find more details on this test can be found in an archived video on Game Developer Conference’s website.

Even though the goals and hypothesis presented for these experiemnts were possibly met, they both suffer from own ethical issues such as confidentiality, transparency, or user consent.  While not all A/B testing is conducted this way it’s not hard to question the ethics in conducting a test that intentionally presents a frustrating, stressful, and emotionally draining experience is a good practice or ultimately helpful.

Some might argue that testing both “good” and “bad” experiences are essential to completely understand a user’s overall experience and usability research methods, such as A/B testing, tracks along the same ethical lines as a normal product launch. But I’d assert that companies should be more transparent and upfront to their users about their testing and the intentional exposure to a negative and potential harmful experience does little to advance the product or industry and instead halts any progress to the detriment of the users.


Optipedia, A/B Testing. Available online:  [Accessed on March 18, 2019]

American Marketing Association (AMA), Are A/B Tests Ethical?. Available online:  [Accessed on March 18, 2019]

Forbes, 10 Other Facebook Experiments On Users, Rated On A Highly-Scientific WTF Scale. Available online:  [Accessed on March 15, 2019]

Game Developer Conference (GDC), The Science Behind Shaping Player Behavior in Online Games.   Available online:  [Accessed on March 15, 2019]

Design Critique – MTA On the Go Kiosks


The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s (MTA) Interactive On the Go Kiosks were first introduced in 2015 and over the years they have provided New Yorker’s and tourist with a one-stop station for navigating their way in, out, and around the city.  You can conveniently find directions from your current station to the Empire State building, get real time information on arrival time of the next train or service status information that may affect your travel.

Figure 1 – Picture of the MTA On the Go Kiosk I used to do the design critique. It is located in the 14th Street Station (A/C/E and L trains) near Pratt Manhattan Campus.

Design Critique

To begin, the On the Go kiosks provide good clues of discoverability on the possible information a user can find with this device.  Not only the physical placement, typically in the center of platform, but also the physical nature of it. It is a solid metal structure with a large illuminating screen.  It affords interaction from passersby.  An interesting advertisement may catch a potential user eye as they walks by or approaches the kiosk but as they scan the display they notice three large blue labeled icons in a black box.  The placement, layout, and format of these buttons resemble the apps you would find on your smartphone and therefore there is a perceived affordance of interaction by pushing (tapping the screen).  With this examination of the kiosk, the Gulf of Execution and Gulf of Evaluation become clear on how to operate and interact with it’s digital interface.

Figure 2 below illustrates that these icons are always visible, even when an advertisement is running.  The designers purposely did this to avoid confusing the user into thinking it was just another one of the many digital advertising billboards in New York’s subway.

Figure 2 – Example of an ad by MTA promoting safety and caution when moving between subway cars. As you can see the three buttons for “Mapping & Directions”, “Arrivals”, and “Service Status” are displayed even when an advertisement is running.

Furthermore these three large blue icons or buttons, labeled (in English) as “Mappings & Directions”, “Arrivals”, and “Service Status”, act as signifiers telling the user what information can be retrieve by interacting with the screen.  The images for each button is unique and distinctive: a map pin with an “i”, a clock, and a diamond caution sign with an “!”.  It’s no coincidence these images are similar to other buttons or apps used in other applications such as Google’s Patented Maps Pin icon or the use of a Modern Traffic diamond caution sign.  The use of a similar images which users are already familiar with help them bridge the Gulf of Execution and Evaluation to the their mental models.

In Don Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday things, he mentions that “Designers need to ensure that controls and displays for different purposes are significantly different from one another”.  This same principal has been applied here and the use these “always on display” distinctly labeled buttons support visibility and mappings between the intended actions and actual operations or information in which they will retrieve.

Q: Wondering how long it will take for the next C train or bus to get to the current station?
A: Select the “Arrivals” button to show how many minutes it’s away as seen in Figure 3.

Q: Want to take a detour to see the 9/11 memorial?
A: You can plot your route by pressing the “Maps & Directions” button as seen in Figure 4.

Figure 3 – After pressing the “Arrivals” Button, the next will screen shows the approximate arrival times the next trains to your current station. You also have the option of finding bus arrival times near your current station as well by pressing the bus button/icon.

As far as I could tell the kiosk doesn’t emanate sound despite having what appears to resemble speaker grills at the top and bottom of the display. However it does provide perceptible immediate feedback by quickly transitioning (in less than a second) to a different screen after pressing any button.  For example in Figure 4A, after pressing the “Maps & Directions” button the screen transitions to a zoomed out map of your location/station and with directional pad for navigation.  In addition to the signifying directional pad, there are clear instructions (‘Tap Any Station’) to further inform the user the map is interactive.




Figure 4 – In picture A, at the bottom of the “Maps & Directions” screen you will find an “Points of Interest” option. This button brings up curated list of various NYC landmarks such as Times Square, 9/11 Memorial, or Yankees Stadium. In picture B. you can select one of these landmarks to bring up information and have an option to get directions on how to get there as seen in picture C. Notice each one of these windows have a circled X, which allows the user to go back to the previous screen.

As seen in Figure 4, you will find a new signifier, a circled X button. This button allow a user to exit the current screen and go back to a previous one.  The convention, a type of constraint, of using an X button to close/exit is common practice in variety of applications we use today and this method is consistently used throughout the interface.

The repeated use of the same button icons and functions (map pins for directions, clocks for schedules, or circled X’s to close/exit) with their dominate blue color drives consistency throughout the interface and not only affords but signifies what is interactive and what is not.


A potential option for users is to provide the option to change the language used in throughout the application’s labels, directions, and navigation.  While the icons themselves are similar to other icons used in other applications (ex. Google Patented maps pin icon) they may be initially misunderstood and misused as they could mean different things (mapping/constraint) depending on the cultures. When discussing culture and design in the DOET, Don Norman mentions “What is natural depends upon the point of view, the choice of metaphor, and therefore, the culture”.

A perfect example of culture effecting natural mappings and a cultural constraint is the actions of the Playstation controller buttons. In the Japanese culture X means NO/Cancel and O means Yes/Confirm and the button’s reflect that, in western cultures this layout is reversed.  Having the option to change the language from the default language of English to something else could improve discoverability and understanding of the interface.


Overall the MTA’s on the Go Kiosks is well thought out and its use of affordances, signifiers, immediate feedback, and mappings presents a strong example of a user-centered design product.  It is easy to use and understand and has a simple design that enables discoverability to a variety of information that will help people navigate their way through the busy streets of New York City.  All these things put together provide a great conceptual model on how it works and what information is retrievable.