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Dark Patterns: using human psychology to manipulate users
What are dark patterns and what can we do about it?
About a year ago I started a podcast with two UX friends of mine, UX Guide to the Galaxy. One of our recent episodes was focused on Dark Patterns — you can listen to it on Spotify or whatever platform you prefer. After recording the episode I decided that this might also be a good topic for this substack, so here we are!
Dark patterns in UX refer to manipulative design tactics used to influence user behaviour in ways that benefit the company or website, rather than the user. These tactics can be used to trick users into signing up for unwanted subscriptions, disclosing personal information, or making purchases they may not have intended to make. In UX design, dark patterns can have a negative impact on user experience and trust. Even though they might initially cause a boost in sales or sign ups, the boost they cause is not long lasting and results in losing loyal customers. Loyal customers are more important than a new customer for most businesses. According to Lorange “loyal customers are willing to pay more for your products, engage with your brand on social media, and recommend you to their friends”. Dark patterns can also lead to legal and ethical issues.
Even though they’ve only gained popularity over the last few years, dark patterns were first defined in 2010 by Brignull as a user interface that has been crafted to trick users into doing things. They are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology and they do not have the user’s interest in mind. Brignull also started a website dedicated to naming different dark patterns and calling out companies that use them that’s still popular today.
There is some debate about whether intent plays a role in determining whether a design is a dark pattern. Some argue that dark patterns are only bad if they are done with the intention of tricking users, while others argue that the impact on the user should be the primary consideration.
Intent is part of the initial definition of dark patterns but it’s something that’s hard to prove. It’s also possible that some dark patterns are accidental and result from poor design choices. As a result, modern definitions of dark patterns are moving away from intent:
Dark patterns are user interface design choices that benefit an online service by coercing, manipulating, or deceiving users into making unintended and potentially harmful decisions
Mathur, Mayer, & Kshirsagar, 2021
Mathur and colleagues identified six main groups of Dark patterns based on whether they modify the decision space for the user or the flow of information:
Asymmetric: does the design emphasise particular choices more than others?
Covert: does the interface steer the user to make certain purchases or choices without their knowledge?
Restrictive: does the UI restrict the number of choices available to the users?
Disparate Treatment: does the design disadvantage and treat a group of users differently from another?
Hides information: does the UI obscure information or delay the presentation of information?
Deceptive: does the design use misleading statements or omissions to induce false beliefs?
The concept of manipulative design isn’t new. The idea of using design to push users to make specific choices has been around long before the term “dark patterns” was coined. Dark patterns have been used in various industries for decades, such as in marketing, advertising, and sales. For example, think of the famous fine print we’ve all experienced where important information is hidden in small, hard-to-read text, such as the terms and conditions of a contract or the total cost of a service. The rise of dark patterns is likely due to the increasing use of digital interfaces in our daily lives and the pressure on companies to monetise their online presence.
But do they work? It depends! Research has shown that aggressive dark patterns have the opposite effect and generate powerful backlash among users. Mild dark patterns, however, often work suggesting that firms employing them generate substantial profits. In addition to this, less educated users can be more susceptible to mild dark patterns.
Some common types of dark patterns include:
Sneak into basket: this refers to the practice of adding additional items or services to a user's shopping cart without their knowledge or consent. This approach allows companies to increase their revenue by exploiting users' cognitive biases and lack of attention.
Forced action: It refers to the practice of using manipulative techniques to force users into taking a specific action, such as making a purchase or signing up for a service.
Misleading buttons: This occurs when a button that appears to cancel a subscription or unsubscribe from an email list actually confirms a purchase or signs the user up for a recurring service. For example, using a button labeled "No" to cancel a subscription instead of "Cancel Subscription." This approach can be used to deceive users and increase the number of sign-ups or purchases.
Sneaky opt-outs: This occurs when a company makes it difficult for users to opt-out of a service or subscription, often by burying the option in fine print or behind multiple clicks.
Bait-and-switch: This occurs when a company lures users in with a low-priced or free trial offer, and then automatically charges them for a much more expensive service or subscription after the trial period ends.
Roach Motel: This happens when a user is able to sign up for a service or subscription with ease but canceling is not possible or is hidden behind difficult to find options.
Misdirection: This happens when a company uses design to distract users from important information or to hide costs. In the example, shown below, the design nudges users to select the upgrade (red button) instead of continuing checking in as they intended to do.
Confirmshaming: This happens when a company forces users to confirm a decision by making them feel guilty or ashamed of not doing it. The example below demonstrates this.
As UX professionals, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are designing interfaces that are transparent, honest, and respectful of users' needs and preferences. To avoid designing dark patterns, we can take the following steps:
Understand the user: Understand their needs, goals and behaviour. This can help us avoid designing interfaces that manipulate or deceive users.
Educate people and call out dark patterns we see: Research has shown that being aware of dark patterns can minimise the effect they have on users. As designers/researchers part of our role is sharing our knowledge with non UX professionals (see what I’m doing here?)
Be transparent: Make sure that users can easily understand the costs, risks, and benefits of interacting with our interfaces.
Test with real users: Regularly test our interfaces with real users to identify any potential dark patterns (remember, dark patterns can, sometimes, be result of bad design) and make changes before they are released.
Encourage feedback: Encouraging users to provide feedback and review the design and business process can help identify any potential dark patterns that might not be visible to the team.
Follow guidelines and regulations: Be aware of the laws and regulations that apply to our industry and design interfaces that comply with them.
Have a clear policy: Have a clear policy and guidelines in place for ethical design and conduct regular audits of our website or product to identify and remove any instances of dark patterns.
In conclusion, dark patterns in UX are manipulative design tactics that benefit the company or website, rather than the user. It's important we are aware of them, understand their impact and avoid using them in design and business practices. Instead, we should strive to create user-centred designs that are transparent, honest, and respectful of users' needs and preferences.
Question: Thanks for making it to the end of this article. Have you ever been asked to design a dark pattern? What did you do?