Dark UX Design – Leveraging User Research to Mislead

As app developers we talk often of the importance User Experience (UX) design, but in this post our hope is to make you aware of its less noble counterpart called Dark UX Design. Dark UX design, or dark patterns, are features of interface design crafted to trick users into doing something they might not want to do, but which benefit the business in question.

As a refresher, UX design at its best anticipates users’ needs and objectives, as well as their assumptions and behaviors, in order to increase the usability, accessibility, and enjoyment of a product. Typically, creating such benefits for the user also ultimately benefits the company as the product is often more successful as a result.

Dark UX design also seeks to understand the the user, and make intentional, well crafted design decisions. Unfortunately, as noted, the aim of these decisions is often to persuade, mislead, or otherwise encourage the user to partake in the company’s objectives, perhaps to the detriment of their own.

As the rules of an ever-changing technology industry continue to evolve, we are seeing consumers push back against such design choices, essentially asking designers to hold to high ethical standards. They are demanding transparency and accountability – the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a perfect example of this, with its emphasis on privacy by design.

Examples of Dark UX Design

Dark UX design can vary in its functionality, look and purpose. Not to be confused with “bad” design, dark UX design also anticipates the user’s objectives, assumptions and behaviors. However, as noted by Adventures in UX Design, dark UX design will use this knowledge “in direct opposition to concepts we celebrate in design, such as empathy, human or user-centered, and inclusivity. Dark patterns rob customers of their agency.”

DarkPatterns.org identifies a dozen different kinds of dark patterns. They range from what they call the “Roach Motel” where it is easy to get into a certain situation, but hard to get out of it, to “Disguised Ads” where adverts are disguised as other types of content or navigation in order to prompt you to click on them. (Think of that ad with the big “Download Now” button…)

Many dark patterns are simple instances created to keep you subscribed, sold, or sharing your data. In the example below, what seems like a basic checkout experience hides a dark pattern. The company has chosen to hide pertinent information for the user within the ‘More info’ tab. If expanded, the user will find that the product defaults to signing them up for both emails and mail from the company, as well as their ‘carefully selected partners.’

This is possible because the company understands user psychology and behavior and anticipates that many users will fail to expand the ‘More info’ tab. The default selection will allow the company to accomplish their objective of signing users up for their promotions, while ignoring the fact that most users probably don’t want to start receiving these offers. A more straightforward and user-centered approach would be to leave this button unchecked and let the user opt-in if they wished.

Dark UX 1
Often, dark design patterns are created through the interface design elements. Here, the user has clearly chosen to delete their account. While it is certainly a good practice for the company to confirm this desire, this company is seeking to thwart the user’s intent by leveraging color to their advantage, a dark pattern often called “Misdirection.”

Typical user behavior for this interface dictates that a user is likely to tap the dominant, blue button with the assumption that it will complete the action they have started. By displaying ‘Cancel’ on the blue button, the company reinforces their objective of keeping the user’s account in tact, while ignoring the most-likely objective of the user at this point.

Dark UX - Misdirection
Dark UX patterns can also occur simply within the verbiage that an app uses. In the example below, you can see how the wording might be confusing to a user. Lengthy explanations, double negatives and other wording tricks exploit the user’s likely behavior of skim reading, or at the very least causes confusion that can result in an unwanted action. A straightforward “Sign me up to receive product updates, upgrades, special offers and pricing” would be much more beneficial and clear to the user.

Dark UX - Obscure
The consequences of dark design varies, for both the user and the company. Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Uber continue to face scrutiny and heightened accountability after dark UX patterns have been brought to light. LinkedIn recently paid $13M in damages, after using dark patterns in their on-boarding process to try and trick users to surrender their e-mail contacts.

Most UX Design is NOT Dark UX Design

Dark patterns often get utilized for short-term gains, such as increasing the number of newsletter subscriptions or bumping revenue. While “the numbers” might look good for a brief time, we believe that great UX design that acts ethically on behalf of your user is ultimately good for your company and brand too.

Thankfully, most reputable developers conduct user experience research for the consumer’s good. How? From the very start, they approach the project with a user-centric perspective. At InspiringApps, for example, you will often hear our team ask questions like “Will they want to create an account right away?” “How many times a day do we expect them to open the app?” and “What will they need to have accessible without a wifi connection?” User oriented questions like these lay the groundwork for the app’s user-flow, user personas, use case scenarios, and technical requirements. All of this occurs during the Discovery phase of our development process.

Design decisions will be made anticipating a user’s most-likely objectives as well as their most-likely behavioral patterns, resulting in a great user experience that will allow the user to navigate smoothly and intuitively through the app. Consideration is given to each part of the app throughout the process, whether it be the initial navigational planning, the interface elements, or the verbiage and tone used throughout the product.

The value of designing with the user in mind should not be underestimated at a time when people are more skeptical than ever. Companies that seek to build trust with their users by using straightforward design will have greater success in the long-run.

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