In space, nobody can hear your users scream in frustration as they click the button to indicate they don’t not wish to subscribe, only to find out it did the opposite of what they expected to happen.
Welcome to the dark side of the UX.
In UX design, a dark pattern is something that either makes the user do something that runs contrary to what they intended or tips the balance of website interaction in favor of the website to the disadvantage of the user.
Why would you do that to your poor user? Well, the motivation to do it is obvious, SPREADSHEETS!
Let’s say we run a social media platform called Branch. Our business model is to grow the user base, and its internal connections, so that we can display more paid ads and collect more information about those users so that we can sell ever more specific targeting options to the advertisers paying to use the platform.
To grow the platform, we want to make it as easy as possible to join. A few bits of data and then your Branch profile page is ready to go. But your profile looks a bit lonely, out on a limb, so why not let us see your contacts so we can connect you to your pals. And unless you opt out of the obfuscated option, we’ll message any contact in your database that’s not in the Branch database and we’ll use your name as a form of legitimacy when we do so that people will think that it’s you trying to connect with them.
It’s called Friend Spam and you’ve probably experienced it at least once in your life as the sender, and more as the recipient.
If we’re going to make joining easy, then we really might as well make leaving hard.
Firstly those three fields you had to fill out to join, let’s factor that up by ten and split them between two different processes each with a contradictory style for feedback and once you’ve filled those out you’ll need to submit both of them to a support team that needs to check that your account hasn’t been compromised and it really is you leaving (why user, why would you do this to us) and to verify we will need a recent photo of you with your passport page visible so we can confirm it’s you (not that our platform is penetrable by scammers you know) and once that’s all submitted we’ll have that turned around in 6-8 weeks and when we contact you asking for final confirmation it’ll be by the most obscure method we can think of, probably a skywriter above a municipal park space in a different hemisphere to the one you live in.
Generally, this easy-in/hard-out dark pattern is called The Roach Motel. But as indicated it can also include a pattern called Confirmshaming where the confirmation wording is designed to elicit some shame or regret in the user, like “think about what you’ll lose if you leave?” Website exit modals or pop-ups are a common place to find this pattern at play.
All of which serves our internal and external reporting. Our spreadsheets bulge with an ever-increasing volume of contacts in the database and user profile volume will never go down because the number of people we add is always going to be higher than the number of people willing to risk a stress-induced nosebleed trying to leave.
With gathering data on our users, we can use a dark pattern of imbalance to push a user down a specific path.
When Branch pushes out its next data policy revision, a popup in the app and on the site will prevent you getting to any content until you respond. The problem is that Branch’s business model depends on us getting more of that sweet, sweet data. Giving the user a “yes/no” choice will hurt our potential to do that.
Instead, we’ll design the page so that it has a big accept button and in the three -dots menu next to it, we won’t even give a decline option, we’ll put a link to contact support. Which has a 72-hour SLA, and your user just wants to log in and see the latest meme content.
They click accept.
Even though that might not be what they want, we’ve created imbalance, where accept becomes the path of least resistance rather than giving the user a balanced “accept/decline” button paradigm.
This imbalance, and the resulting acquisition of data that Branch monetizes through the almost entirely unregulated data brokerage industry, is known as Privacy Zuckering (for reasons which are hopefully clear).
A common variation of imbalance patterns is the “Accept all/Reject all” cookie option where “Accept all” is the expected outcome of accepting all cookies, but the all in “Reject all” is less than all encompassing. Reject all but the cookies we consider essential.
But who’s going to read the cookie form micro-sized copy that tells you that? Especially when it’s the only thing between the user and their next cat video. The user reasonably assumes that there’s parity between the use of the word “all” and proceeds accordingly.
In this tracking example the switch is set left for the action, enable tracking, and to the right for disable. The opposite of industry standards and against the expectations of the vast majority of users:
While these are quite egregious, one of the greyer areas for dark patterns is in forced continuity. You subscribe for a free trial of something, with a decent lead-in time such as two weeks, and for ease you have to add your credit card details to start the trial.
The pattern of Forced Continuity suggests that if the company holding the card data doesn’t contact the user towards the end of the trial, prior to billing, this is a dark UX pattern, but the user surely has some responsibility in this situation? They added their card details and as long as the details in the sign-up process were clear, they knew they would be charged.
Contacting users towards the end of their trial would likely reduce the number of first month payments the company takes in, especially as some users will be too embarrassed by their mistake to challenge it and instead cancel while they mutter under their breath about it.
It’s understandable that in the continuing battle for online attention and revenue, companies are tempted to use dark UX patterns to meet targets and justify the costs of building better websites, faster servers, louder marketing and more staff.
Ultimately the issue comes down to respect for your users and customers. If you see users as a data mining opportunity, or your customers as cash cows, then you will have to rely on shadier ways of creating interaction, because you aren’t connecting them personally with the benefits of what you do or what you sell.
Brand loyalty is built on respect. How often do you hear someone passionately defend Facebook as the social platform of choice? Rarely.
At Mulberry MC we know that the essence of business is the personal. Even within the B2B sphere, people buy what they feel connected to, like the supplier that treated them with respect and honesty, rather than the one that manipulated them, bamboozled them, that saw them in impersonal ways.
If you want effective personal branding, communications or websites, we can help you accentuate the personal connection to get results, without resorting to the dark side. If you want to find out more about how we do that and how you can benefit, get in touch.
Mike McConnell is a Creative Director at Mulberry Marketing Communications. An award-winning full-service B2B communications agency based in London, Chicago and Melbourne. He has years of experience creating and editing written work alongside developing ideas for a diverse range of clients across multiple formats. His favorite dark shows growing up were Knightmare, Eerie Indiana, Round the Twist and The Twilight Zone.