Like with most knowledge, user experience (UX) design can be used to “good” and “bad.” With UX there is a popular term to label ‘unethical’ design patterns: Dark Patterns. Let’s look at what dark UX patterns is and what issues arise around it.
What are Dark Patterns?
In short dark patterns are user interface (UI) that purposefully trick the user to do something that they didn’t want to do. This includes adding items to a user’s shopping cart without their knowledge or signing them up for mailing lists they don’t want to be on. It even includes placing ads so users accidentally click on them in your app.
By far, the best resource is Harry Brignull who has this great presentation that introduces Dark Patterns:
What makes a design pattern dark?
For a ton of examples, check out the great the Dark Patterns Library. There they have more categories than I’ve listed below as to what make a pattern dark, still here are the main causes of dark UX.
UI and UX inconsistency is insanely annoying. This ranges from the frequencies of (and when) ads are being played to the swapping of buttons to get you to accidentally buy something. In App purchases try to get away with this sort of behaviour by training you to click in one spot for an option you want then swapping that spot to be a click for something else.
Zynga’s Words With Friends does this when you have the free version. They will switch the close dialog on ads they play around every so often so you accidentally click on ads.
Mislabeling or Obfuscating Options
Apple’s hiding of their ad tracking option in iOS 6 is a perfect example of this. Over at The Verge they have a dark pattern UX article that was inspired by Apple’s nonsense.
Easy to join, hard to leave
Joining a site, community, whatever is an easy process but leading is difficult. These designs make it hard to unsubscribe or otherwise not be bothered. Antivirus software is a notorious example of such annoyance.
This can include things that get you to sign up for a free month then automatically roll over into charging you a monthly fee. Apparently stamps.com does this.
Telling Your Friends
If you were on Facebook when games first appeared on the platform then you know why this is a bad idea. Or, if you ever have gotten an annoying email about joining some network that a friend as joined you know this is a bad idea. If you haven’t experience either of those then you are lucky.
Why dark patterns are bad
For one, you’re going user/customers/players are going to lose trust in what you do and will be more reluctant to return to what you provide.
Indeed, this can turn users away from your site as a larger problem of bad UX design. This can lead to bad UX causing bad search engine optimization (if that’s something you care about).
If you focus too much on metrics and analytics to asses success then you can find yourself only watching click throughs or ad clicks. This obsession can lead to a blindness of what really matters: providing a positive experience for your players/users.
The Verge article mentioned above also has a great example on a website failing because of its reliance on dark patterns. Experts Exchange hid information and confused users with their layout and tricked people into signing up for the site.
This is a good case study showing what can happen if you systematically use dark patterns as part of your growth strategy.
Experts Exchange could still be a dominant force today, but they’re not. They got greedy, they used dark patterns, and everyone got annoyed with them and migrated to a friendlier, more ethical competitor.
When you look at your customers in aggregate, it’s easy to be very detached and impersonal about it. To understand the reality of what it’s like to be on the receiving end of your product, you have to zoom in.
Is this all bad?
Inherently designing a system for tricking people can be regarded as bullshit (as defined in this essay On Bullshit). Which to me means that it’s nearly impossible to make a dark pattern good.
So to leave this post on a positive note here’s an piece on using dark patterns for good.