Don’t go dark with your UX
Have you ever subscribed to a free trial version of an online application lured by the possibility of canceling anytime but only after giving your credit card number? Tried to unsubscribe from SMS or newsletter ads, but couldn’t find the friggin button? Welcome to the world of dark UX patterns.
Here’s a piece of trivia: it wasn’t Ben Parker who first said: „with great power comes great responsibility”. Imagine you have a deep knowledge of human behavior in relation to technology. You know what drives users to click the button, which color works, and how to write a perfect clickable title. Isn’t it tempting to get higher conversion by using this knowledge to tilt the odds in your favor? This is exactly when the good force of UX goes dark.
What are dark UX patterns?
Dark UX patterns are the way to design a user interface to trick and deceive users. These are not anti-patterns, which are basically design mistakes, often made unwillingly. Dark patterns are using cognitive science purposefully. They are commonly found in all kinds of eCommerce or travel websites. Dark patterns make users do things they didn’t intend to, like buying additional insurance or booking a hotel room because there are only 2 left (allegedly).
Dark UX patterns work so well because they are based on our natural mental models and acting patterns. They take advantage of our desires and lack of attention. Business often treats them as clever and harmless, but in a long run, the dark UX patterns significantly lower the lifetime value of the customer. They are just as bad as Black Hat SEO. Short-term benefits are bound to outweighed by losses at some point in future because dark patterns are not just bad design. They are evil.
Dark patterns origin
Term “dark patterns” was brought by British consultant Harry Brignull a few years ago. He started a battle to raise awareness of unethical UX practices of online companies. He and Mark Miguel founded a website http://darkpatterns.org, where they show use cases from all around the World to shame this practices, and educate why it is wrong to use them.
Kinds of dark UX patterns
Dark patterns are used everywhere, and you also were a victim of these practices more than once. Currently, Brignull listed 14 types of patterns to watch for. Take a look at the most popular ones.
Forced Continuity became really popular, annoying trend, used by lots of online service-based websites. You can use a full product for free for a given time. But first, you should give your credit card number, just in case you would like to buy a subscription afterward.
This trend is based on users short-term memory and laziness. Didn’t you buy an additional month of VOD service, just because you didn’t read this “spam” message that a trial period is ending? I did.
I ran into a more evil idea. A clothing app was charging for week periods after a free trial has ended. And what is more, I couldn’t find the way to unsubscribe it for next two days! That leads us to another dark pattern called Roach Motel.
You know, how sometimes it is very easy to start subscribing to online services, but after some time there is almost no way out? Surprise! You’ve been caught in ‘roach motel’ trap.
In real life, as some of you may not know, roach motel is a type of trap for cockroaches. Wait, what?
This pattern is commonly used in any subscription-based products. The most common? These advertising SMS, without a number. Once upon a time, I gave my number to make a loyalty card and receive 10% off price. It was so fast and easy. Now I get more SMS spam then my Gmail mailbox. Once the subscriber, always subscriber.
Sneak into Basket
Recently, I was buying a new domain at one of the Polish top hosting sellers. I did it thousands of times, so I just clicked through a process without the second thought. You must imagine my concern when I realized, that not only I bought the desired domain, but also another hosting account.
“Sneak into Basket” is (what a shame) commonly used pattern in eCommerce. It’s just the online reflection of cashier asking you whether you would like a chocolate bar, energetic drink, hot dog, etc. But cashier wouldn’t put any goods to your basket, would he?
The other variation of the previous pattern are hidden costs. You know what terrifies me worst? Buying plane tickets. After clicking through all “choose your direction and set” process, I always stop breathing for a second, when clicking “Buy” button. Why? Because of additional costs that are added in the last step. It is always few hundreds of zlotys, and it really sucks.
Current EU laws have forbidden using practices like Sneak or Hidden costs in the whole EU. It’s not possible, that you, as a commerce platform owner can add anything to a basket by default. Any additional information regarding additional postage costs must be clearly described during the whole buying process. What is more, a user should be informed from the beginning about any additional costs that could occur in the future.
If you are, just like me, a LinkedIn user, at some point you most likely received a notification asking you to add new contacts to the platform. At a first glance you may have noticed quite a few number of people from your network, but on the second screen, LinkedIn encourages you to send an e-mail to all your mail contacts. It’s called “Friendly SPAM”. It’s very easy to clumsily agree to invite everyone, which is a huge business for contacts related online services. This practice is deeply dark, because it’s not only a SPAM practice, it’s also shifting the responsibility of this behavior to the user.
It’s not a common situation when a user intentionally would like to invite all his contact list to a certain service. It’s much better to kindly ask for referrals, without any hidden tricks. The empathic “sharing is caring” idea is much better understood by people, thus creating a more human brand image.
If you ever played those free-to-play mobile games or you watched free content on the Internet, then you most probably already faced Misdirection pattern. Usually, the buttons to start, choose and accept the game parameters are this same color. The next screen? Surprise, you should now see the screen with the ability to buy additional options or a premium version with the exact button. It’s a misleading concept of forcing people to perceive additional features as a standard package and leading them to a payment confirmation.
After using a website or mobile app for a longer period of time, we usually learn that after clicking three accept buttons, you should now change your behavior. But it’s not the way you should follow. Designers should work on an attractive way of displaying all the additional offers and all the benefits that are preparing a user for a conscious decision of Premium option. In this case, we are sure to build a true loyalty to a brand and gain truly engaged users of the platform.
Sometimes it is a double negative sentence in a form or misleading colors of buttons. Another time your interaction is interrupted by an overlay ad. Dark UX patterns work. From business perspective fighting for bigger conversion is not a bad thing, but using the dark patterns is just a short-term policy.
The true loyalty is based on trust. And we just can’t build a real partnership trying to trick users all the time. It is as simple as that. Companies have to give their users a leap of faith and trust, allowing them to decide on their own if they need an additional product. Rather than tricking, try to teach them. Focus on the long-term relationship and try to do better and more tempting products itself. Using only dark patterns as a strategy can harm business reputation in a really destructive way. Do you remember the Death Star? It was blown 2 times. Don’t go dark.