Dark Patterns: The darkness in UX

Are you someone who buys things online very often? Have you ever felt the pressure of minimum stock available for an item that has been in your wishlist for a few days? Or have you experienced the disappointment with hidden costs added to a product towards the end of your checkout process? If so, then you are one amongst the billion users who get cheated by cheap tricks that are purposefully used to gain business profits — better conversion rates, better money. Probably we would have fallen for these baits either knowingly or unknowingly. These tricks are the darker side of a website or app design deliberately created to deceive users and make them do things that they didn’t intend to do. Scientifically, we call them Dark Patterns. Dark patterns have been around us ever since we started interacting with the digital world. However, it got more traction in the era of e-commerce where the term was coined for the first time in 2010, by a London based UX designer, Harry Brignull.

According to him,

“A Dark Pattern is a type of user interface that appears to have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things which are not in their interest and is usually at their expense.”

The success of a dark pattern depends on its ability to manipulate human psychology. They mainly take advantage of the following:

1. Users are too lazy to read

2. Users don’t want to think

3. Users follow a particular gazing pattern

4. Users want to finish off tasks in less time

Depending on the motivating factors Brignull has listed down 12 types of dark patterns:

1. Trick Questions

2. Sneak into Basket

3. Roach Motel

4. Privacy Zuckering

5. Price Comparison Prevention

6. Misdirection

7. Hidden Costs          

8. Bait and Switch

9. Confirmshaming                        

10. Disguised Ads

11. Forced Continuity          

12. Friend Spam

In this article, we will discuss some of the commonly seen dark patterns.

a. Sneak into the basket

You attempt to purchase something, but somewhere in the purchasing journey the site sneaks an additional item into your basket, often through the use of an opt-out radio button or checkbox on a prior page.

In MakeMyTrip, an Indian online travel application, for each ticket booked through the app, it charges an additional amount of Rs 10 as a donation for a cause. Though they’ve made it a point to take the user’s consent, the checkbox for donating is selected by default. The chance of a user noticing such a small difference in fare when navigating from one screen to another screen is almost zero. This is because the user’s attention has been pulled in by providing the required information above the fold and hiding other information under scroll.

b. Roach Motel

You get into a situation very easily, but then you find it hard to get out of it.

Nykaa, an online fashion app uses roach motel dark pattern to make sure their customers don’t slip away by making it hard for them to delete their accounts permanently. For a user to create an account in Nykaa, would be as easy as a pie but deleting the account for whatever your reason, isn’t a walk in the park. Like Nykaa, other well-known e-commerce sites like Myntra, Amazon, Jabong, and Snapdeal use similar design practices.

Here’s another example that makes it difficult for users to unsubscribe to newsletters.

c. Hidden Costs

You get to the last step of the checkout process, only to discover some unexpected charges have appeared, e.g. delivery charges, tax, etc.

This is commonly seen in many online applications. As you see in the example, I end up paying 180 Rs when ordering food for 110. The unexpected and saddest part is that you get to know about these additional charges only at the last step of your checkout process. So that by then you have already made up your mind buying the item and wouldn’t want to disappoint yourself by canceling the order.

d. Disguised Ads

Adverts that are disguised as other kinds of content or navigation, in order to get you to click on them.

Disguised Ads are commonly found in news websites. They are done to get the user’s attention as he skims through the news posts. This helps business to overcome the phenomenon called “Banner blindness” where visitors consciously or unconsciously ignore banner-like information. By designing ads to look like regular contents users are more likely to click on them.

In the example below, you can see how ads are disguised as new mails.

e. Forced Continuity

You are forced to do something you never intended to do.

This type of deceptive design is commonly found in the subscription-based services where you will be forced to enter the card details to get started with your free trial. These tricks impelling users to provide the details in advance let the business conveniently charge its users once the free trial has ended without notifying them. Sometimes it is made even worse by making it difficult for users to cancel their subscription. So what do you think? ​Are Free Trials Really Free?

f. Bait and Switch

You set out to do one thing, but a different, undesirable thing happens instead.

Most of the windows users would have upgraded their OS to windows 10 only because they were trapped by this most aggressive dark pattern. Clicking the close button to discard the popup initialized the upgrade. This was completely an unexpected behavior that frustrated users as it led to teardown users’ trust.

g. Price Prevention Comparison

The retailer makes it hard for you to compare the price of an item with another item, so you cannot make an informed decision.

LinkedIn asks its users to upgrade their account to LinkedIn premium without giving them the cost. They make it difficult for users to compare the price for different plans offered by hiding them in the detail section that appears only on clicking a particular plan. As you see, the price is displayed in a small grey font making it less prominent to users. By not displaying the price evidently, an unnecessary cognitive load is created forcing them to proceed with the plan recommended by the site.

Dark patterns still exist extensively across the internet. Many successful leading companies use these unethical design tricks to deceive users. However, people have started recognizing them and have also acted upon causing legal trouble to these companies. Top tech giants like Facebook, LinkedIn, Apple, Microsoft etc. had to face serious consequences due to these deceptive design practices. Users can never appreciate designs that swindle them and wouldn’t mind switching to other sites despite the commendable service and experience you offer. So, let’s create true designs to drive better business outcomes through satisfying UX.

As Fabricio Teixeira, founder of UX Collective says. ​“When designing, it’s about making sure we’re choosing respectful design patterns that won’t create rabbit holes for users.”