UX/UI Design has a heavy psychological component. Science, data and art all play a role when it comes to designing smooth and pleasant user interfaces and experiences. UX/UI designers seek to find out what makes users excited about a product or service, and how they can help their design convey a sense of trust in order to make the business thrive.
Marketers know which word combinations can evoke imagery and emotions; similarly, designers use web design, customer journey analysis, and many other tools and devices to attract and delight users and take their experience on the site or app to the next level. But it’s one thing to try to make it an engaging experience, and another to bamboozle the user into clicking on something or adding something extra to their shopping cart without realising. These questionable tactics are known as dark patterns.
What Are Dark Patterns?
Dark patterns are user interfaces and experiences, like those found in websites and apps, that are deliberately (a.k.a. very much on purpose!) designed to trick the user into doing certain things, like signing up inadvertently for extra “insurance” when they buy an experience, or camouflaged ads that don’t look like ads so that the user clicks on them.
These tactics aren’t exclusive to the digital world. Dark patterns have been used forever: a quick example would be a loan company that promises a reasonable interest rate, but hides additional fees in the small print.
In all honesty, any discerning user knows that most websites and apps are designed to make a profit– it’s a business, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with selling goods and services! We don’t fool ourselves about what UX/UI designers strive to achieve: crafting a reassuring, easy to understand, and seamless experience for the user is done not just to do said user a favor. Enjoyable webpages and easily navigable sales funnels help hold the interest of the potential buyer and keep them interested and eager, so they don’t get lost throughout the process (be it because of confusion, or because it was too tiresome to complete the sale).
But good, ‘white-hat’ UX/UI doesn’t seek to fool the user into giving them impressions or money without knowing what they just got themselves into. This is why dark patterns are considered a big no-no in the UX/UI world, and a twisted practice that makes companies get a bad reputation for dishonesty and malpractice.
We’ve already mentioned some examples, like disguised ads or sneaking items and extra charges in the shopping basket by hiding opt-out options, but these are some of the most pervasive dark patterns used nowadays:
Have you ever signed up for a free trial that, when it ended, automatically signed you up for the full subscription without telling you when or how you could unsubscribe before being billed, or even hiding the options to leave or making it incredibly difficult to do it before the free trial ran out? Not giving you a warning in time for you to decide if you wanted to stay or not is considered extremely unethical, and many well-known companies are guilty of this.
This is the name used for the situations when companies will let you sign up to services or subscriptions easily, but hide the option to unsubscribe. Some countries have even had to make it law to provide the option to unsubscribe to newsletters in every email, but that hasn’t always been the case. Not too long ago, some companies would go as far as making you unsubscribe from them by sending a request via postal mail!
Bait and Switch
This decoy tactic is, like the word ‘bait’ hints, an attempt to make a user do one thing when they think they’re doing another. An example would be to advertise an item and then send the buyer a different, worse quality version; or offering a great deal, and then telling the customer that the item is unavailable and offer a more expensive alternative instead.
A company is using the hidden costs dark pattern when they add unexplained extra costs or fees to your bill. The line isn’t very clear when it comes to adding handling and processing fees to online purchases, but some companies take this too far. When you don’t get to see shipment and extra costs until you’ve gone through the shopping process, signed up, and added your address and contact information, this dark pattern is being used against you.
Misdirection happens when the user is distracted in order to sneak an action right under their nose. Software installation wizards that sneakily install antiviruses and navigation bars, or switch up the user’s preferred search engine, is an example of a misdirection tactic that was very popular some years ago.
Price Comparison Prevention
Sometimes, companies attempt to hinder comparison websites by not disclosing the cost of a single item in order to avoid getting compared to more cost-effective alternatives. Instead, they sell the item in a bundle without giving the unit price. Phone companies are notorious for sneaking extra costs and avoiding honest competition like this.
This is when companies ask you consent questions that are confusing or misleading on purpose in order to get you to agree to something when checking boxes. An example would be a company that, instead of asking you to check a box to receive promotions and updates (as is the extended custom) tells you, in a convoluted sense, that they will contact you if you don’t opt-out by checking the box.
Named after Mark Zuckerberg himself, this dark pattern refers to tricking users into agreeing to misleading privacy settings, in order to get them to disclose more information to the company than they think they are. In the era of big data, this tactic is used to milk users for sellable data, and is being stopped by legislation in many countries.
Confirm-shaming takes place when a process to unsubscribe from a service shames you and makes you feel bad for leaving. It is one thing to notify you that you will lose your account, and another to tell you that it’s very mean of you to make them sad by leaving!
Risk vs Reward: Why Companies Use Dark Patterns
Dark patterns are used by companies that aren’t customer-centric, and don’t understand that giving your customers a good experience is more important than tricking them into giving you extra revenue. Customers can be fooled, but they aren’t stupid: this is why review websites exist, and it’s a guarantee that companies that use dark patterns will get reviewers that warn others about these tactics– if not worse! The dark pattern in question might be illegal or become it very soon, with internet legislation catching up in recent years, and the company might even have to face a millionaire fine!
Customer-centric approaches always lead to long term success, because, even with the most refined product, marketing strategy, and customer support system, your best publicist will always be a happy customer. Using malicious or unethical tactics like dark patterns leads to short-term ‘wins’ but long-term losses, as users realise that you’re harming them for your own profit.
How to Defend Your Designs from Dark Patterns
A UX/UI Designer is, first and foremost, the voice of the customer, their advocate. If you’re asked to implement unethical practices that fall within the scope of dark patterns, don’t be afraid to speak up! You’re defending users from bad experiences, and much more: you’re saving everyone, within and outside the company, a LOT of trouble. And, as if that wasn’t enough, you’re protecting your reputation as a designer, too, and creating solid, good work that you’ll always carry in your portfolio with pride.
Dark patterns seem like the easy way to people who don’t know a lot about the nitty-gritty of UX– they probably don’t realise that, in the long run, these practices actually give worse results. To show them this, you can use A/B testing to your advantage: test the dark pattern against a better option, and use the test data to prove your point in a way they can’t deny!
However, even obvious data can be insufficient to convince a company to leave bad practices behind. If you’re working for a company that consistently asks for bad designs that go against your values, it’s time to look for a new job. Bad designs reflect poorly on you as the designer, so don’t let your portfolio be ‘corrupted’ because of someone else’s bad judgment. We guarantee you that your integrity will be very appreciated (and probably better rewarded, too) elsewhere. There’s no shortage of opportunities for UX/UI Designers who know their stuff and put the customer at the center of their focus.
Interested in how UX/UI Designers vouch for the best user experience and work to take it to the best it can be? Take a look at our UX/UI bootcamp!