Design is taking a more significant role in almost all business. Marketers, managers, and executives are becoming more comfortable discussing and weighing their opinions on how brands design their products and websites. Mostly positive, the additional focus on design as also seen the rise of more dark pattern UI/UX to confuse customers and rise business results. Often, these design choices are hostile against the consumer, while only leading to a short-term bump for business metrics.
Dark pattern UI is the practice of misleading the user through design choices. It’s the prechecked button, the hard to exit pop-up, the small print cancellation policy, the hidden unsubscribe button and any other design which attempts to get the user to do something they otherwise wouldn’t have done.
Dark pattern UI is an attempt by managers and executives to increase short-term results. We’ve all felt pressure to increase sign-ups, revenues, user adoption, click through rates or any other KPI. Dark pattern UI is a shortcut to help achieve those results.
We all know the example of aggressive newsletter pop-ups. Or 7 day free trials which automatically begin a non-refundable subscription as soon as the trial ends. They serve to infuriate customers and often, only lead to temporary bumps in KPIs.
Dark pattern design is a double-edged sword. Yes, you can increase sign-ups and other metrics through a couple of design ‘hacks.’ Often, they are hostile to the user, and you end up upsetting more users than you realize. They get frustrated, leave bad reviews, contact your support department, or worse yet, get a bad feeling about your brand and write you off altogether.
Aside from bothering users, dark pattern designs are lazy. They’re shortcuts in place of providing actual value to your customers and solving their problems. Instead of addressing your customer problems, or proving better functionality you’re misleading your customer. Furthermore, there’s something to be said for organizations digging deeper into their data. Perhaps the solution to sagging revenue numbers lies within better monetization strategies or building small features that certain segments of customers would be willing to pay for.
The main problem is your not providing value to your customers. Dark pattern design isn’t solving anyone's problem but your own.
When can we use dark pattern design?
That’s not to say your product needs to be sanitized of all actions which support your business and goals. Those designs should be thoughtful, it should be apparent to a user what they agree to, and if they don’t want it, they should be able to find the ‘no thanks’ option quickly.
In Canada with the new anti-SPAM legislation, companies need to get explicit consent to sign people up to their mailing lists. The bill also stipulates that the permission needs to be freely given, meaning you cannot have the ‘yes’ box auto checked. Although in the short term, this is a difficult change for a business to make, in the long run, it forces that business to provide better email content and ensures that their email list is comprised of people who want to receive these communications.
Aggressive growth hacking doesn’t make happy customers. Confirmsharing, confusing cancellation flows, double negation, and other design/growth hacks often produce superficial numbers boosts which either aren’t sustained or don’t end up translation into ‘real’ results. That user who was tricked into paying their first month after their free trial likely won’t renew, and may even proceed with a chargeback which can damage your standing with your payment processor and end up costing you more in fees.
Instead of relying on dark pattern design to drive revenue, growth marketers should focus on experiments, analyzing data, and speaking with both successful and unsuccessful customers. A/B testing and experiments would allow you to make actual gains that can be sustained over the long term. Optimizing user journey’s and flows lets you anticipate when it’s the right time to ask for the purchase and find potential drop-off-points to avoid churn. This isn’t to say marketers should be sticking to dry copy, stop asking users to perform actions or stop selling, but they should stop doing it in a way that’s meant to confuse the user.
It’s easy for some customers to be offended by anything. For organizations to exist, they need to generate revenue. With that in mind dark pattern design isn't pushed to buy a product when the free trial is up, nor is it discounts, nor is it asks to subscribe to email newsletters. Users and designers cannot apply a ‘dark pattern’ label to any action which asks a user to ‘give’ something to the organization.
Dark pattern design is also not poor design. Interface mistakes, clunky UI, even marketing promotions which are too aggressive don’t make for dark pattern design. In essence, the difference is the attempt to mislead the consumer deliberately. For example, you visit a pricing page that says take a yearly contract and pay $20 a month instead of $25, once you get to the checkout page, you see that it is the entire year billed up front, in small print. This style of design misleads the customer into thinking they’ll be paying $20 per month, but in actuality, it’s the full $240 up front.
Misleading 10% off coupon, giving the user the choice of email or text.
Double negation. Users expect to check a tickbox to receive something, not opt-out.
Instead of merely saying 'cancel' Amazon uses vague language to confuse the user. If your customer has made it this far, consider offering them something to stay, instead of using copy tricks.
Ubisoft makes their email unsubscribe white text on white background to make it harder for the user to unsubscribe. The odds are that your unsubscribed users no longer want to engage with your emails.
Google's Gmail ads (and even their search ads) are doing everything they can to make ads look like actual results. Google has become more aggressive in mixing their ads with search results over the past 24 months.
The Amazon Prime sign up screen is needlessly aggressive. They make the 'No' option harder to find and use language which essentially demeans the user. There's nothing wrong with a checkout upsell, so long as it's clear, and the user can quickly decline.
When considering the above examples, it's clear that companies are attempting to use design and copy to trick users. There is something to be said for upselling and asking for someone's consent, but it needs to be done in a way that's clear for the user, and obvious as to what they agree to.
Dark pattern design, UI and UX are apart of a broad conversation on ethics in business. Whether it’s the handling of personal data, misleading marketing, or ‘fooling’ customers, companies are expected to act within an ethical framework.
Businesses that see the importance of creating positive relationships with their customers tend to win in the long run. While those that don’t tend to fade away.
It’s idealistic to think that businesses will engage in perfectly fair, and transparent practices, even when they say they will. All anyone has to do is look at today’s largest tech companies, to see how unethically they act. This article doesn’t presume that every company will always be a good actor. However, I’d like to illustrate that these type of design tricks and misleading practices often only work in the short term. Instead of helping customers, they infuriate them.