Hidden costs and trick questions may boost your profits in the short-term, but the long-term effects of these dark design techniques are hugely detrimental to your brand.
Deceptive design has been around since well before Amazon came along and made it almost impossible to cancel your Prime subscription.
However, it wasn’t until 2010 that the term ‘dark UX’ was actually coined by a UX designer named Harry Brignull. He was frustrated with the deceptive and manipulative techniques he saw being used by companies to take advantage of customers and maximise their profits. He created a website called Dark Patterns to raise awareness of dark UX, explain the different kinds of manipulative tactics to look out for, and shame the companies using these patterns.
Brignull defines ‘dark UX’ as:
“A user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.”
In other words, dark UX is about an imbalance between business and user needs.
As designers, we need to make difficult decisions every day, and odds are it’s when striking a balance between marketing objectives, business objectives, and our hard-fought-for user needs. I can guarantee that you have at some point had trouble unsubscribing from a newsletter, cancelling a subscription or even closing a pop-up window at least once. That’s because dark patterns are absolutely everywhere, and we fall victim to them more than you might realise.
About a year ago now, I decided I wanted to cancel my Audible subscription because I found that I don’t enjoy listening to audiobooks as much as reading a physical book. Using my iPhone, I tried to cancel my subscription through the app, just to find out that I can only do it on a desktop (first red flag). After switching to my laptop, where unsubscribing was still like trying to find a needle in a haystack, I ended up discovering that I had to call a customer service line to cancel.
Considering I expected to be able to tap a couple of buttons on the app and unsubscribe quickly and easily, this really damaged my opinion of and trust in Amazon.
This isn’t a trick that just large companies use either. I recently tried to unsubscribe from a milkman service (a digitally savvy one — may I add) through their app, just to find that, exactly like Amazon, I had to call a customer service line. I was able to do almost everything else through their app or website, so this wasn’t an issue of lack of technical capability.
This will not do any good for your business. This only frustrates and angers customers who, if they were able to easily unsubscribe from your service, may have returned as a paying customer had they not lost their trust in your company.
Dark UX is, as well as incredibly annoying, also unethical and very deceptive. The very definition of a good user experience is to have the user’s best interests in mind and provide them with a seamless, enjoyable experience.
On the other hand, dark UX is about manipulating the user and tricking them into making decisions that aren’t good for them, but are good for the company (supposedly).
Depending on how well you balance your business and user needs, your UX design will fall towards either the dark side or the light side.
The dark side:
- Is about deceiving the user and maximising profits or returns
- Brings about negative emotions (such as fear and anxiety) to push the user to take a certain action (such as subscribe to an email list or buy an add-on)
- Distracts and misdirects the user from their intended goal
The light side:
- Offers experiences that help the user achieve their goal
- Puts the user at the heart of what you do — all design decisions are made with the user’s best interests in mind
- Gives the user full freedom and control
#1 The classic opt-in trick
If you couldn’t tell, they’re really interested in getting a hold of your email address so they can flood your inbox with sales promotions and marketing.
If you look really closely (and maybe get out a magnifying glass), there’s a very faint ‘opt out all’ option at the bottom. That’s clear enough, right?
#2 Sneak into basket tactics
One of my personal favourites — RyanAir’s sneaky attempt to force you to buy their travel insurance policy.
If you look closely, you’ll find that ‘Don’t insure me’ is an option only found in the dropdown list of countries, used when buying insurance. Without a detective’s mindset and plenty of time on your hands, you’ll probably end up buying the insurance, whether you wanted to or not.
One of the most commonly used tricks, especially in ecommerce, is creating a feeling of scarcity or ‘FOMO’. This is done in many different ways including countdown clocks (see Boohoo’s misleading use of a countdown clock), flash sales and displaying information such as ’10 other people have this item in their cart’.
If I told you that there’s a shortage of toilet paper and it was selling out fast with no guarantee it will ever be available in abundance again, you may just drop everything to run to the supermarket and stock up. We know this is true, because it happened in 2020!
Scarcity encourages desirable actions as it increases the perceived value of a product or products by making them appear harder to get. Flash sales make you think you’re getting a great deal, when in reality, they’re succeeded by another flash sale, followed by another and another.
We often see scarcity being used on ecommerce and travel sites, claiming that there’s only a certain amount of the product available with a certain amount of people viewing it or have it in their basket. These wouldn’t be so bad if they were all real and actually displaying real-time data, but most of the time, they’re not.
Confirmshaming is an emotional tactic, which takes advantage of basic human psychology. When we do something online, we are often on autopilot and not giving everything our total attention, so it’s easy to misinterpret something, like a confusing opt-out option, or make quick decisions based on emotional triggers.
Confirmshaming is a common example of this. This is when the user is given a negative emotional consequence for not doing something, like subscribing to an email list.
Nielsen Norman Group found that the reason confirmshaming tends to work is because they make the user pause before making a decision. As soon as you pause during what was an uninterrupted flow, you’re likely to change direction.
People are becoming more desensitised to tactics like these and they don’t leave people with a positive opinion of that brand. No one likes being guilt-tripped into doing something.
By nature, these dark patterns will likely increase profits, drive more sales, encourage more click-throughs and boost your email list. However, these are illusionary short-term gains — the long-term impact of using these tactics looks very different.
Dark UX is short-term thinking at the expense of reputation and brand loyalty.
No one likes being misled, taken advantage of or shamed at the best of times, let alone when handing their hard-earned money over to a company. People are becoming much more aware of dark patterns out there and companies using them are already feeling the impact of a damaged reputation and lack of returning customers.
LinkedIn were fined $13 million in 2015 for using dark UX patterns to deceive their users. As part of the LinkedIn signup process, they asked users to give them access to their email account, claiming that it would improve your career network. What they actually did was send emails on behalf of users to their contact lists, which were designed to appear as if they came directly from the user.
Sports Direct have also used ‘sneak into basket’ techniques, which are now considered illegal, and companies found guilty will be facing hefty fines.
So, not only are there huge financial and legal repercussions for tricking users, you’re also essentially achieving the exact opposite of a successful business.
When it is okay?
You can improve user experiences and conversion rates without misleading users.
For example, a gas and utility company called FloGas gathered some feedback through usability studies and found that putting forms everywhere on their website was off-putting to users as they found they were too ‘grabby’ in wanting their details. By removing all but one form and creating a simple user journey with compelling content, form submissions went up by 18%.
You don’t have to improve sales at the expense of the user’s experience.
Using tactics like countdown clocks are okay if you’re using them honestly and wisely — for example, a countdown until the next-day delivery cut-off at 10pm.
Use your designer’s intuition — are you doing this at the expense of your users? Are you eliciting negative emotions?
When designing things like microconversions, ask yourself, will this:
- Help people accomplish a task?
- Communicate the flow or process a user can expect after an action?
- Strengthen the brand’s tone of voice through the customer journey?
Aim for transparency, aim for honesty, aim for respect.