Are you frustrated that the spinning progress wheel on your screen is so slow? Or elated when you open your preferred ride-hailing app and see plenty of cars near your location? Perhaps you’ve been buying an item online and seen, with alarm, that it’s nearly sold out and hurried to get out your credit card.
You may have been a victim of dark patterns, a form of user experience (UX) that isn’t what it seems. Progress bars that linger to make you believe something serious is being accomplished, ghost cars that are in fact not at the end of your street, and random number generators making it appear that purchasing your item (or in a pre-COVID world, booking the ‘last seats’ on a flight or room in a hotel) is more urgent than it really is.
These dark designs play on human psychology to push customers into favouring a company’s desired response, often at their own expense. While it might seem like a great way to report better metrics, in an age of privacy breaches and data mishandling, dark design can do serious damage to a business’ brand.
Nudging people in a particular way, appealing to behavioural psychology or persuading customers to purchase are not inherently bad things, nor are they even always evidence of dark design. Deceptive UX is not just bad design, it is manipulative and often unethical, and aims to trick a user into doing what the business — not the customer — wants.
It’s important to note that it doesn’t always happen on purpose. Many dark patterns emerge because businesses want to see results — a certain number of newsletter signups, or items in a shopping basket, for example. Without a complete understanding of the sanctity and importance of the overall customer/user experience it can be easy to see why a manager asks a designer to tweak the ‘buy’ button to be more prominent than the option to remove an item from a cart.
There are many ways that individual UX elements can create a ‘misleading experience’.1 Here’s a rundown of the most obvious to watch out for:
But where is the line between marketing and trickery? In the most obvious cases, it is in the intent. A/B testing of an email is a legitimate way to find the best impact for your message. Signing everyone who visits your website up to your newsletter without asking is about boosting your metrics at the expense of your customer. Does it matter, and will the customer even notice? Increasingly, the answer is emphatically yes.
As UX designer Harry Brignull, who coined the term ‘dark patterns,’ told TechCrunch in 2018, “UX design can be described as the way a business chooses to behave towards its customers.”7 And customers are paying attention. In a world where transparency and trust is high on customer agendas and questionable practices are being outed in mainstream news, it is more important than ever that businesses hold onto followers. It simply doesn’t make sense to risk loyalty for the short term gain of additional clicks.8 Not to mention that the proliferation of regulation aimed at protecting consumer rights such as the European Union’s GDPR or the California Consumer Privacy Act which will eventually lead to monetary penalties for misleading behaviour.9
So what then is light design? Designed ethically, user experiences should respect those interacting with them. Inherently, we all know from personal experience what this means. Not only should our interactions with brands be seamless, easy, understandable and honest, they should also allow true — informed — consent over that experience, and our data. Customers must possess true agency over their interactions with a brand, as a choice based on a false or partial understanding of reality is not really a choice at all.10
Instead of manipulating customers into choosing what a business wants, companies should trust that users will make appropriate selections when they are given genuine choice — and will reward them for that honesty. After all, now more than ever, customers will abandon a brand — even one they are loyal to — after just a couple of bad experiences.
Safeguarding customers with responsible technology practices will go a long way to building real, sustainable trust that leads to business success. That way, you’ll always be in the light.
With thanks to Christopher Ong.
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