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13 February 2020

The Cookie Warning Fallacy

Jason Teunissen
UX Expert

Why great solutions backfire

One thing nobody ever told me about becoming a User Experience designer is how often you have to challenge and disarm “well intended bad ideas”.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” — Henry G. BohnMy initial inspiration for this blog came from the Cookie Warning Policy we are all suffering from, and how it could have been prevented.

If only people knew how to notice and disarm well intended bad ideas! While exploring this concept, let’s coin the term as The Cookie Warning Fallacy.

After researching all corners of the ‘net, and talking with people from around the world, I’ve discovered this isn’t a new phenomena. The Cookie Warning Fallacy shares a lot of similarities with with the following;

“The cobra effect” relating mostly those in power who may have good intentions to change a dysfunction, but end up making the situation worse.

Jumping to conclusions Fallacy, where someone makes a decision before having all the facts.

Confirmation bias, when people find evidence to support their own theories and ignore evidence that may be contrary to their beliefs.

Understanding a well-intended bad idea

The essence of a “well-intended bad idea” often fails on 2 fronts.

  • The problem isn’t defined properly.
  • The solution solves the wrong part of an (ill defined) problem (or makes it worse).

Obligatory Venn-diagram“One of the things I had learned, was that the essence of brilliant creative ideas, is not that you have some brilliant mind and that you birth it out of thin air, it was that you figured out the right question to ask, you figured out the right problem to solve, than focus on solving that, and by the time you solve it, you look brilliant.”
– Lorne Lanning (co founter Oddworld inhabitants)

Ill defined problems

Ill defined problems are hard to uncover because they sound logical and seem to make a lot of business sense.

What often occurs is that a solution is thought up based on a gut feeling, and then problems are gathered and linked to the solution to help support why the solution is a good idea (confirmation bias).

Being open to having your idea challenged is an efficient way to get different perspectives on things (cynical consultants are great at this).

Another efficient way of re-framing a problem is through the “Design thinking” method.

The Cookie Warning FallacyMy favorite example of Design Thinking is, where some students go to Africa with the goal of creating fire prevention methods to stop villages from burning down. On the face of it, this sounds like a noble and well defined problem.

One group started talking with the locals and discovered that what they were afraid of most is losing important and irreplaceable documents.

Now the problem shifted from Fire prevention to Document preservation.

The solution they came up with, was to go around the villages with a scanner and upload all the documents to a cloud environment.

This solution would not have been found if the team had not investigated into the actual goal. By taking their time and questioning the end user they were able to come up with an idea that solved the problem.

How to discover ill defined problems

The easiest way to uncover how valid a problem is, is to talk to the end users, and the best way to find the root of the problem is to be overly curious and ask them “why”at least 3 times.

Once you’ve discovered the real problem you can communicate this with the stakeholders, and if the stakeholders already have discovered this on their own, you now have validation before they invest resources into creating a solution. Win, win.

What if I’m not allowed to talk to end users?

Than you die a little inside, curl up in a ball and cry a bit.

In these cases the stakeholder has to be made aware that, not talking to an end user beforehand is one of the biggest risks a business can take.

It could be due to an N.D.A (non disclosure agreement) or fear of someone stealing your idea, maybe the end users are hard to reach, or maybe the end user doesn’t exist yet.

The Cookie Warning Fallacy

Well intended bad solutions

Most “well intended bad solutions” often fall into one of these categories;

  • Have beneficial short-term effects, but have potentially harmful long-term effects.
  • Manipulate the metrics but not the situation.
  • Solve an issue on the stakeholder’s side but not the end users side.
  • Can be taken advantage of, by doing the opposite of what they are trying to achieve.

The important thing to remember is that having a bad solution is the first step to having sort of a good solution.

How to disarm the stakeholders and create an actual solution

Stakeholders often don’t understand why their amazing idea’s may not be as effective as they think, so I asked some colleagues on how they help expand their stakeholders minds.

Expectation management
Finding out precisely what their expectations are, means you can start thinking if their ideas will actually solve this.

Identifying concerns
Often their solutions are based on concerns they might have from previous experiences, uncovering these concerns helps show empathy and understand what their solution should actually solve.

Sketching scenarios
Once you understand the stakeholders expectations and concerns, sketching out a scenario often helps stakeholders see their solution in a different context. Be cautious about the way in which you formulate your questions to find out how they actually see the problems resolved, some stakeholders might feel attacked and see your questions as belittling, whereas others see it as helpful curiosity.

With this technique its mostly about planting the seed, so that they feel like they have discovered the key to their own success or at least lead the team away from impending doom.

Sometimes the proposed solution is the only solution considered. If you are able to propose some alternatives, this will help create an objective frame or reference, and help sway the stakeholders away from bad ideas.

Whiteboard session
I find that drawing out the complete proces helps reframe the solutions, making insights visible between the relationship of different elements. If a problem is difficult to draw, it might be a good idea to break it into smaller sections.

Show examples
Another way to help with reframing is to ask for examples that are similar in how the relations are constructed. Analyzing the results will help understand what to expect.

Other examples

The Cobra effect

Problem: European settlers wanted to get rid of cobras in India.
Solution: government introduced a scheme whereby cobra skins could be swapped for money.
Result: People started breeding cobras so they could sell them, which lead to the government abandoning the program, which resulted in people releasing the now worthless snakes back into the wild creating a bigger cobra boom.
Links: Freakonomics Podcast — The cobra effect

EU cookie law

Problem: EU internet users download “tracking cookies” without there knowledge of what they are or do (cookies can be used to potentially breach privacy).
Solution: Enforce a terms and conditions notification for anyone from the EU visiting your website, to let them know what kind of cookies your website is using before installing any cookies.
Result: Almost every website now has a mandatory notification you must accept before viewing the contents of the website, often making you agree to cookies which breach your privacy.
Links: The Guardian: how to avoid being tracked online, The stupid EU cookie law in 2½ minutes

Too much crime

Problem: High amount of crime reported.
Solution: Make it more difficult to report crimes.
Result: Same amount of crime, with less data about them.
Links: Why the US needs beter crime reporting

Mexican odd/even number plate scheme

Problem: High pollution due to car emissions.
Solution: Ban certain cars from driving in the city based on the day of the week and what their number plate ends with.
Result: People buying a second cheaper(more polluting) car to get around the ban, resulting in even more pollution.
Links: The Guardian — Licence plate schemes ineffective


Problem: high amount of violence and crimes caused by drunk people.
Solution: ban alcohol.
Result: people still wanting to get drunk, creating an illegal market redistributing the power to mobsters with their own vision on society.
Links: wikipedia: prohibition

Speed traps data

Problem: Unusual amount of accidents happen on a stretch of road.
Solution: Speed Cameras are placed on those roads.
Result: No freak accidents, which are falsely attributed to the speed camara’s.
Links: Fullfact — are speed camaras causing more accidents

Unlimited Vacation days

Problem: A company wanted to attract top talent.
Solution: Create benefits such as “Unlimited vacation days”.
Result: People feel pressured to not let their team down, resulting in them not taking any vacation days.
Links: INC. how one companies unlimited policy backfires

#Metoo Movement

Problem: Woman getting sexually harassed at workplace
Solution: Don’t hire woman, no woman at the workplace, no sexual harassment issues.
Result: Woman becoming oppressed due to their fight against oppression.
Links: thewrap.com/mika-brzezinski-warns-metoo-warriors-know-men-wont-hire-women-now/

Porn Block

Problem: Stop under aged children from accessing porn online.
Solution: Force user to provide ID before access content.
Result: Scheme stopped due to fears of porn watchers to be identified and exploited.
Links: wired.co.uk/article/porn-block-uk-wired-explains

Bully Bracelets

Problem: Bullying in schools.
Solution: wear a bracelet showing solidarity against bullying.
Result: bullies know who to pick on, because they are wearing a bracelet.
Links: theguardian.com/education/2004/dec/08/schools.uk2

NZ Gun Buyback Scheme

Problem: After the mosque shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand Government banned all (previously legal) semi automatic guns.
Solution: The Government created a mandatory buyback scheme were gun owners would receive between 25–95% of the guns price after handing it in.
Result: An unknown amount of people(including gang-members) refuse to re-sell their guns and have to now illegally store them outside of the designated safety lockers (due to mandatory inspection of legal gun licence ownerships) creating potential hazardess scenarios and an illegal market.
Links: pbs.org/newshour/world/how-new-zealands-gun-buyback-program-is-faring-6-weeks-in

More links