Beware of the Dark Side (of UX)

Have you ever been required to enter your credit card information while signing up for a free trial, only to find it nearly impossible to cancel before the end of the trial? Did you wind up charged for this service you no longer want?

Welcome to the dark side of UX.

Chances are this isn’t the only dark pattern you’ve experienced, and it’s not even limited to the online realm, although that’s where we’re focusing for this article.*

“A Dark Pattern is a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.” – darkpatterns.org

On the web, dark patterns can range from the obvious such as an overly complex unsubscribe process that’s so frustrating you just give up and stay subscribed, to far more subtle trickery like pre-checking additional services or charges during checkout, leaving you locked into a 2-year extended warranty.

Sometimes it’s fairly innocent, but often times it’s deliberate. Ignorance is forgivable. Intent is just evil.

If that makes you angry, it should. As consumers, we should be able to trust that the companies we look to for products or services won’t take advantage of or trick us.

Why You Should Avoid Dark Patterns in UX

Sadly, though, a lot of companies haven’t gotten that memo. How many of the following dark patterns have you run across online?

  • Misleading copy which seems to ask or state one thing, however more careful reading reveals it means something else entirely.
  • The ol’ bait and switch, as nefarious as the familiar “close” button on a software install popup that actually initiates the install.
  • Requiring users to enter credit card details when signing up for a free trial, and automatically starting to bill them when the trial comes to an end. Worse yet, failing to remind the user of the approaching trial end and making it difficult to cancel the renewal.
  • Services requesting access to a user’s credentials under the guise of finding friends/contacts using that service, and going on to publish content or send messages using their account.

Any one of these scenarios is a poor, invasive, and manipulative user experience which makes any “white hat” UX designer want to scream. Good UX is transparent and keeps the user in control. Dark UX is tricky and self-serving. As UX professionals, we have a responsibility to fight for the user and keep their best interests in mind. While it doesn’t happen often, sometimes we do have to educate companies in the dangers of embracing dark patterns. The best way to do this is to show them how it hits them where it hurts most: the bottom line.

While the temptation is understandable, manipulative design isn’t just bad for the user, it’s bad for the company as well. Sure, you may see a bump in your subscriber list with those who won’t bother to unsubscribe, or maybe you locked more customers into additional services which padded your bottom line, but what’s the true cost when you manipulate your users?

In the first scenario, you get a list bloated with subscribers who have no intention of interacting with your marketing messages. Worse, users who flag your email as spam are notifying your ISP of your evil ways, resulting in a damaged sender reputation. This makes it much more difficult, if not impossible, for you to even reach the inboxes of those who actually want to receive your emails.

In the second scenario, you likely earn an angry email or phone call which may cost you more money in returns and refunds to resolve. You’ve almost certainly lost a return customer, and likely other potential customers when your angry user takes to social networks, casual conversations, and family gatherings to share how you duped them.

The good news is, if you’re guilty of dalliances with the dark side of UX, it’s not too late. You can come back to the light. It’s important to remember to put the best interests of users first. Be transparent. Keep them in control. It’s the right thing to do, and manipulation is neither a recommended nor sustainable business model.

For an excellent collection of dark patterns, check out the experts over at Darkpatterns.org, where you can browse their current library as well as submit additional dark patterns to assist in the battle for good UX.

*If you’re interested in hearing more about manipulative design across all realms, I recommend you listen to “The Checkbox That Ruined My Life,” a fantastic presentation by Katie Swindler and Dennis Ellis.


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