You Might Be Using Dark UX Patterns

You Might Be Using Dark UX Patterns

Users’ hire your website or app to do a job. Whether it’s to use a service, learn about a topic or to purchase something, the user has goals — and so do you.

A well-designed experience makes it super simple and intuitive for the user to know where to look and what to click to accomplish their goals. But what happens when those clicks don’t add up to your business goals?

Most marketers, sales and product teams, UX and UI designers will get to work, A/B testing hypotheses, measuring campaigns and iterating on designs. In theory, test-measure-iterate is exactly what you should do. It’s the essence of user-centered agile development. It’s key to building products people value and experiences users love.

Yet what happens too often: teams test and optimize for only the business’ goals, not what the user comes to do. And if you’re not careful, that approach can push your UX to the dark side.

What are dark UX patterns?

No one likes to be tricked. But that’s exactly what dark UX patterns do. 

Through sleight of design and psychological triggers, dark UX subtly manipulates what the user sees and thinks — and does it in a way that benefits the business, not the person. 

Dark patterns lead the user to do things they didn’t necessarily intend, like signing up for a subscription or giving permissions for data. For the most part, dark UX isn’t illegal, yet. (Stay tuned.) For many UX practitioners, dark UX isn’t simply unethical. Quite frankly: it’s offensive. 

“Instead of doing the work to find product-market fit or to build continuous value, dark UX patterns use trap doors to make people fall into their sales funnels and bottom-lines,” says Dana Yang, Ventera Senior UX/UI Designer

What’s disturbing, however, is how pervasive dark UX is. You’ll see in the examples below, dark UX can be extremely subtle and common. Top retailers, digital products and influencers use them. And sometimes their success makes these patterns look like “best practices” other teams use for user engagement and conversion rate optimization.

Examples of dark UX patterns

Explore these examples of dark UX, keep your eye out for them in your day-to-day and check your own experiences for them. After the list, we’ll get into how you can put your own designs to the dark UX test.

1. Confirmshaming

You’ll often see confirmshaming on website pop-ups inviting you to opt into something — and the option to decline is borderline insulting. It’s intended to shame or guilt the user into opting in.

EX: Opt into our mailing list and get a 10% off… or you hate puppies!

Create an offer the user will think is valuable enough to opt into it! If it’s a newsletter, email list or download, be crystal clear on what they’ll get out of it. Then deliver something that they don’t want to opt out of.

2. Disguised Ads

A subversive form of native advertising, disguised ads look like branded content and call-to-action buttons that blend into a website or app experience. Clicking on the call-to-action (CTA), however, will take you to the advertiser’s website instead of taking a purposeful action on the website you started on.

EX: A download CTA button in the download section of a free software section on a website. When you click on it, you’re redirected to a paid software download page.

Come up with a go-to-market strategy for your product that clearly connects your value proposition with the right audience that wants to find, download, pay for and use your product. Invest in an open, honest ad strategy that sharply targets that right audience and draws them in with a clear message of how your product will change their lives.

3. Roach Motel (a form of Obstruction)

Roach motel makes it super easy to get into a situation, like a premium subscription or paid membership. Then it’s challenging to find your way out of it.

EX: You sign up for a subscription to a digital product. When you want to cancel, the website makes you call a number that puts you on hold for hours or tries to talk you out of canceling at every turn.

Make it clear, easy and accessible to cancel and modify subscriptions and memberships from user’s account profiles. If you’ve created a product or experience that helps users meet goals and adds value to their lives, you won’t need to fight user churn with an impossible cancellation process.

4. Forced Continuity

Some services require you to enter a credit card to create your account and start a free trial. Forced continuity is when your credit card is automatically charged at the end of the free trial, especially without warning.

EX: You start a free 14-day trial for a digital product. On day 15, your credit card is charged $159 for your new annual subscription. (It’s even worse when coupled with a roach motel.)

Provide meaningful user onboarding and engaging content across the 14-day trial. Nurture the free-trial user to realize the product’s value and start picturing themselves as a full-time, paid user. Provide reminders when their free trial is about to expire. Let them opt in because they value the product.

5. Trick Questions

Crafted to confuse you, trick questions (typically in a form) appear to ask one thing, but use placement of words, double negatives or turns of phrase to nudge the user to take an action the business wants. 

EX: We may contact you with details about our products and services unless you click opt out.

Keep all UX copy clear, concise and honest. Avoid double negatives or convoluted statements. And, again, if you need to trick people into opting in, consider building an offer or product that they value.

6. Misdirection

Just like the magic trick, misdirection uses design elements, like bright and contrasting colors, to focus the user’s attention on one thing so it can distract you from something else.

EX: When selecting your seat, an airline website highlights primary CTAs for business class and first class seats, which costs significantly more than the economy ticket you want to buy. Meanwhile economy seats are light gray and look unavailable as a disabled CTA.

Let the user select the level of product and service they want to purchase. Display those options as the prominent options on the page. Make it clear and easy how they can upgrade their selection. But don’t override their selection with a pricier pick.

7. Privacy Zuckering

Several tech giants are coming under fire for design patterns that trick users into sharing more data about themselves than they intend. 

EX: When an app repeatedly asks you to share your location data and warns that the app won’t work as well without it. You deny permissions. Then it continues to ask.

Product usage data is valuable. It can help your team build better experiences and continuously improve the value of your product to users. But don’t trick users into giving it to you. You can use a communication plan to educate your users on why sharing their data can be beneficial to them, how it benefits your company and exactly what information you’re collecting. On the flipside, user testing is another way to have people opt-in to you observing their activities and collecting data on them.

8. Friend Spam

A product asks permission to import your contacts. Then the business markets itself to your contacts as if you’ve personally referred them to your friends.

EX: When setting up your new account, you allow permission to access your contacts under the pretense of finding friends on the app. Instead, all of your contacts receive an email “from” you inviting them to download the app too.

Ask loyal customers for referrals. Consider a referral bonus. If you have a well-designed product that makes your users happy, they will be willing and eager to be the person who introduces friends and colleagues to a valuable product or experience.

Test for dark UX patterns in your own designs

After reviewing all of these examples, you’ll have a hard time looking past dark UX patterns in everyday experiences. The Ventera CX & Design team hopes we can help you prevent dark UX patterns from happening in your designs, products and experiences, too.

Dana, suggests designers and product teams ask themselves these questions to ensure their designs stay focused on user goals and steer clear of dark patterns.

  1. What if everyone did what I’m about to do? Would the world be better or worse with it? 
  2. Am I treating people as means to an end? Are you treating them as individuals with goals more important than your own?
  3. What are the consequences or impacts?
  4. Would I be happy for this to be published in tomorrow’s papers? This test emphasizes accountability— the sort of person you are and want to be.

What a difference a user-centered approach can make

User-Centered Agile Development (UCAD) has revolutionized the quality of products Ventera builds and helps our clients in the commercial and government sectors modernize the way they solve problems with technology. 

Take a look inside Ventera’s user-centered approach to product development and what makes UCD and Agile a match made in tension. 

Read What is User-Centered Agile Development?

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