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Weaponized Design: Dark Patterns in UX

 

In 2016 users of older version of Windows were displayed a pop-up recommending an update to Windows 10. What started as a benign offer, over time turned into something more sinister. As the meaning of close button was changed — from simply closing the window to actually initiating the operation — to force the upgrade upon the unsuspecting users. Unsurprisingly, it was met with substantial public backlash.

This is a dark pattern: a deceitful UX design that tries to maneuver people into taking actions they otherwise wouldn’t take. These tricks are almost as old as the internet itself, they exploit loopholes in human psychology. Even though they are considered to be bad for business by experts, and unsurprisingly users hate them, they remain a common mean of increasing rapidly companies’ reach and profits.

 

The update pop-up that Windows users were shown

 

The dark side of UX

The trick Microsoft tried to pull on its customers is called Bait and Switch — when a user trying to do one thing reaches a different effect, often undesirable. This is one of 12 types listed on darkpatterns.org, a website dedicated to collecting most shameful examples of dark patterns. Its creator, Harry Brignull — the man that actually came up with the term — has given each category a name that is easy to remember.

There is Privacy Zuckering, named after a particular famous CEO, where users are manipulated into sharing more private information than they intended to. This covers both unclear privacy settings designed in a way that users might overshare and whole date brokerage industry that has grown so much in recent years.

Another example is the Roach Motel, this is a scenario in which it is easy to get in, but almost impossible to get out. Anyone that has ever tried to delete their Amazon account can tell how hard it’s actually is to do.

Some dark patterns are so common, they become an industry standard. In order to sign up for any service like Netflix users are obliged to put in their credit card details — after the free trial comes to an end card starts getting charged without warning. This is called Forced Continuity, and it exploits people’s natural tendency to forget about things and is especially sinister when paired with Roach Motel techniques that impede a user’s ability to cancel the service.

 

Why do companies use Persuasive Design?

Using design to influence people is way older than the internet. Most popular fields are e-commerce, organizational management, and public health. For example, countries like Poland or Belgium — where citizens are required to opt out if they don’t want to be organ donors — have significantly higher participation rates than countries where people have to actively choose to become one.

The same methods can be used in the service of greater good are often taken advantage of by savvy marketing and business people. People tend to not pay enough attention or are too lazy, whoever has never skimmed through Terms of Use can cast the first stone.

Cognitive biases are relatively easy to be exploited, and persuasion is a powerful tool to change the behavior of consumers. Anyone that has used booking.com can attest that those bright red warning labels create a feeling of scarcity and urgency that can compel anyone to speed up their reservation process.

 

An offer from booking.com displaying scarcity of rooms

 

When is something truly a dark pattern?

Chris Nodder, UX consultant and author of “Evil by Design”, has created ethical guidelines for companies to rate their methods on a scale from persuasive to manipulative. It basically boils down to who benefits the most from the thing in question. Most commercial products are designed to benefit the company and consumers equally. Services that help develop better habits, like Endomondo, are labeled as “motivational”, and ones that push people’s actions toward public interest as “charitable”. If the company takes a whole profit, creating no or little real value for its customers, then we can call it “evil design”.

Compared to the SEO industry — where it’s easy to differentiate between “white hat” and “black hat” practices — the lines for UX are more blurred. There are no algorithms that can search websites for such practices. It’s worth remembering that not always there is malicious intent behind, sometimes it’s just really bad, unthoughtful design.

 

Why are dark patterns so popular in UX and will they prevail?

Because they work, at least in the short term. Lots of companies hire managers that are focused solely on a few number-based metrics, with things like the general experience of a product pushed down on their priority list. When an employee is tasked with increasing very specific value, it’s not surprising to see the use of dark patterns, as they require less effort and more often than not drive up the number fast in a short time span.

Despite short-term gains, experts agree that implementing dark patterns in your business is a bad idea. Initial boost in the number of new users rarely results in an increase of loyal customers, as nobody likes to be deceived. Which is bad because loyal customers are decisively more valuable, as they are more likely to engage with your brand, pay more, and recommend it to others.

“If your business depends on dark patterns to succeed, you’re just leaving yourself open to being disrupted.” H.Brignull

Fortunately, more and more companies start to put more emphasis on good design in their business models, and it’s more common to see designers in management roles nowadays. Moreover, the rise in popularity of tools like A/B testing makes it easier to actually measure the benefits of genuine design.

Thanks to this trend companies realize that creating short-term gain at the expense of brand perception can hurt their profits in the long run. Unsurprisingly, manipulating users diminishes trust over time, and puts your business at a competitive disadvantage against any company that is honest with its customers.

Filip Wilczek Product Designer

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