Imagine purchasing a plane ticket online. You’re trying an airline you’ve never flown before because you found an unbeatable price on a roundtrip flight.
After you’ve chosen your dates, time, and class seating, the web application takes you to a page that allows you to pick your seat, which seems like a nice feature. You pick a window seat towards the front of the plane and continue to put in your card information when you notice that you’re being charged $20 more than the original fare you were shown.
The charge is a result of you choosing your seat on the plane — you could have skipped choosing a seat to be assigned one randomly, but this was not explicitly communicated as an extra cost or even an option.
In fact, the airline was probably hoping you wouldn’t notice the extra charge at all, or would not want to put in the effort into going back and opting out. The website was actually designed to confuse you in order to make the airline more money. This is an example of a dark UX pattern.
What’s a Dark UX Pattern?
A dark UX pattern is a device that a website designer uses to trick you into buying something or signing up for a service you didn’t intentionally mean to. They can also be used to compel a certain action or dissuade users from doing something.
Basically, if you are being tricked into something you didn’t mean to do, a dark UX pattern is probably involved.
Dark patterns don’t necessarily point to bad design or a lack of UI/UX knowledge. In fact, the choices are often expertly planned and purposefully used as a tool to coerce users into taking an action that will ultimately benefit the website owner.
There are numerous ways that a designer could implement a dark UX pattern. They often rely on behavioral psychology and using people’s assumption against them. Some are common practices that you might seem fairly often, while others can be particularly sneaky and malicious.
I can’t remember the last time I came across dark pattern UX as dark as what I just went through trying to cancel Amazon Music Unlimited. That Jedi shit they’re trying to pull with the button color is so dark I feel like I need a shower. pic.twitter.com/3GsKkoWFLi
— Alex Rainert ♂️ (@arainert) March 21, 2018
How Instagram tricks you into syncing ALL of your contacts when picking a username is the most sinister interface trick I’ve ever seen pic.twitter.com/BQqgYHNOs5
— ⚡️ Owen (@ow) April 6, 2018
A few common methods of implementing dark UX patterns include:
- Micro-copy – Including text that clearly outlines the intent of a website, but making it so small or putting in a place that people wouldn’t normally check so that they miss it. If your users have to perform a full examination of the page to make sure they aren’t being tricked before they check out, they’re probably not going to be rushing back.
- Confusing language – Double negatives, limited options, and other confusing language aren’t always the product of poor communication. Sometimes, the wording is made to push you in a certain direction instead of clearly describing the intent.
- Color theory – Certain colors grab our attention and communicate different things to us. Dark UX uses this against us by using color to highlight one thing while making the other unappealing. This could be in the form of making a CTA a vibrant green button, while making the cancel option underlined, clickable text that is barely noticeable.
- Too good to be true – Sometimes it seems like you’ve gotten lucky and found a really great price until the website asks you to add on unnecessary extras. If it seems like you have to spend more money just to make it to check out, the site design may be playing tricks on you.
- The free lunch – One of the most popular practices in the dark UX arts is the “free” trial that turns into a paid subscription without warning if you don’t cancel. This has become so common that most people are aware of the practice, but it’s still a dark pattern.
- Unrecognizable ads – Ads should look like ads; if they’re disguised as content that will make you click away from the page without you realizing, that’s a dark pattern. For example, a button that’s made to look like it’ll download something or exit but goes to another page would fall into this category.
- Under pressure – When websites tell you that you only have a certain amount of time to buy something, or that something is about to sell out, this is usually just a technique to pressure you into buying. If you come back to the site tomorrow, odds are you’ll still be able to purchase.
- The decision maker – Many times you sign up for something without realizing, like websites that ask you to enter your email and some supplementary information to use to a service. A common dark pattern is putting checkboxes below, and in order to submit, you have to check that you agree to terms and conditions. Sometimes something like an email subscription opt-in is already checked — except it’s not much of an opt-in if you don’t click it yourself.
- No escape – Every website wants it to be easy to sign up to use their service, but if it’s not so easy to cancel, that might be on purpose. Making it unnecessarily difficult to cancel a service through the website is often a sign of a dark pattern.
So why are dark UX patterns so problematic? Businesses want to make money, so they should want their website to help that goal in any way possible, right? Wrong.
While dark patterns may help influence short-term goals, the long-term impact is negative.
Besides legal action that could be taken if your website is too deceiving, it’s also deterrent for consumers.
Fast Co Design acknowledges that many designers aren’t responsible for strategizing dark patterns and are often just directed to do so by upper management who may be trying to reach a certain metric, such as the number of newsletter subscribers. However, the result of this is often a negative association of the site or brand as a whole in consumers’ minds.
Since some dark patterns –such as automatically charging an account for a paid subscription after their free trial has ended — have become the industry standard, they can be more challenging to identify. But being aware of these patterns as a designer, developer, or tester is critical to creating a user-friendly experience.
When you trick your users into doing something and they catch you in the act, a lot of times they lose trust in you and your application. In fact, it’s not uncommon that they go to a competitor’s site that they find more ethical.
As you try to align your online presence with a company that consumers trust, the more tricks you play, the less likely they will feel an inclination to remain loyal buyers. Instead, prioritizing empathy and focusing on design that actually eases the challenges users face in their journey is more likely to set up lucrative, loyal, and long-lasting relationships.