In the ever-evolving world of digital interfaces and online experiences, the term “user experience” (UX) is often synonymous with positive, intuitive, and user-friendly design. However, not all UX design is created with the user’s best interest in mind. Some design elements, known as dark patterns, deceive or manipulate users into actions they might not otherwise take. These dark patterns in UX design can lead to frustration, loss of trust, financial harm and even adverse health effects.

What Are Dark Patterns?

Dark patterns are deceptive design techniques used to trick users into doing something they wouldn’t necessarily choose to do if given truly balanced options. These tactics are expressly used to get users to act against their own best interest. They knowingly exploit cognitive biases and psychological principles to benefit the company at the expense of the user. The term Dark Patterns was coined by Harry Brignull in 2010, who has since become a leading voice in the fight against unethical UX practices – and we’re super happy to have him as our senior advisor!

Types of Dark Patterns

Dark patterns can take many forms, each with its own specific intent and effect. An important thing to know about dark patterns is the truly impressive volume and quality of scientific research on this topic over the past decade. No less than 16 taxonomies have been identified by academics and regulators such as the FTC (Federal Trade Commission), the European Commission, the OECD, the European Data Protection Board and the French data protection authority (CNIL). An ontology of all these taxonomies has also been created by Colin M. Gray, Cristiana Santos and Nataliia Bielova, with three 3 levels: High-level, meso-level and low-level.

Frankly, we don’t believe that it matters too much how these deceptive design techniques are called. What matters is to understand how you are tricked and or trapped into using them. Here are just a few ways:

  1. Get you to share more personal information than you want to: if you knew what data is being used and by whom you might be making different choices. This could take the form of “Privacy Zuckering”, named after Mark Zuckerberg, or “overloading”, when users are bombarded with too much information to confuse them, or also “skipping”, where the design makes it easy to overload privacy features. “Stirring” can also be used to the same end: playing with users’ emotions (guilt, fear or excitement) to make them share more personal data – also called “confirmshaming”.
  2. Confuse you about the action you’re going to make: for example the “free trial”, which is not free nor a trial! Users are often trapped into a recurring, paid-for subscription that’s going to be very hard to cancel, if not impossible (aka ”roach motel”). This could also take the form of something known as “sneak into basket”, where a product like insurance is automatically added, or where the design make users believe that they have to pay to chose a seat on a plane (”sneak into basket”, “hidden costs” etc).
  3. Prevent you from making the action you intended: for example making it more difficult to reject than accept cookies, to cancel than to enter into a subscription (”roach motel”), or making it difficult to exercise one’s rights (consumer, privacy…). This could also be called “forced continuity”.

Again, the point is not how these dark patterns are called, but the severe damages they cause, both at individual and societal levels.

Your attention, or lack thereof in these cases is key. Unethical companies count on you being inattentive, not having time, or “not caring”. While you are trying to get on with your day, and just want to make your process as quick as possible on any given website, you click on the easiest to access button, and don’t pay attention to the details and unintended consequences. The implications of these flittering unnoticeable moments, these one click mistakes, are many. There can be serious financial consequences for you, and data or privacy issues down the line.

In short, dark patterns can cause significant harm to users.

The Impact of Dark Patterns on Users

Companies using these deceptive patterns are sabotaging their success. Dark patterns in UX design erode trust once a users realise what’s been done. When people feel tricked or manipulated, their trust in the brand or platform diminishes. This can lead to a loss of customers, negative reviews, and potentially serious legal and financial consequences for the company.

Loss of Trust

Trust is a fundamental component of any successful relationship between a company and its users. When users encounter dark patterns, they feel deceived and manipulated, leading to a breakdown in trust. Once lost, trust is incredibly difficult to rebuild.

Financial Harm

Dark patterns can lead to unexpected financial costs for users. Hidden fees, unwanted subscriptions, and other deceptive practices can cause users to lose money without their informed consent. This not only harms individuals but can also lead to broader financial repercussions for the company through chargebacks, disputes, and legal actions.

Emotional Impact

The frustration and stress caused by dark patterns can negatively impact a user’s emotional well-being. Feeling tricked or deceived can lead to anger, stress, and a sense of helplessness, all of which can deter users from returning to a platform. The European Commission also evidenced in a study in 2022 that dark patterns increase users’ heart rate and anxiety!

It’s simple: for companies and users, dark patterns are a lose-lose game, whereas ethical design practices are a win-win. This should be an easy decision for companies to make.

How To Identify Dark Patterns in UX Design

Detecting dark patterns in UX design requires a keen eye and a thorough understanding of cognitive biases and ethical design principles. That’s what we do for a living, but here are some quick wins that you can easily implement:

  1. Analyse User Flow: Review each user journey to identify points where users have decisions to make and look for cases it’s much easier to make decisions that benefits the company than users.
  2. Ban obscure terms: spoiler alert, walls of jargon are not inevitable! Plain language is totally possible even on complex legal concepts and it is often required by law
  3. Check for Transparency: Evaluate how transparent the design is in terms of information disclosure. Are all costs, terms, and conditions clearly stated upfront?
  4. Test for Consent: Ensure that all user actions require explicit consent. Look out for pre-checked boxes, hidden options, or unclear choices.
  5. Evaluate Exit Options: Assess how easy it is for users to exit or opt-out of services. Is the process straightforward, or are there multiple barriers in place? Are there the same number of steps to subscribe and unsubscribe, to buy or to cancel?
  6. Test with users: Regularly collect and analyse user feedback to identify any recurring complaints about deceptive practices. We actually created a User Testing Lab dedicated to dark patterns, where we scientifically measure the degree of manipulation, coercion, deception… or the absence thereof. If dark patterns are identified, they can easily be remediated into fair patterns which empower users to make free and informed choices.

How To Fix Dark Patterns in UX Design

Addressing dark patterns in UX design is essential for creating a trustworthy and user-friendly platform. Here are steps to fix these unethical practices:

Conduct a UX Audit

Perform a comprehensive audit of your UX design to identify and document any dark patterns. This should include a detailed review of all user flows, interface elements, and interactions. If you don’t have the time or resources, no worries! We’re specialised in dark patterns auditing.

Prioritise Human-Centric Design

Shift the focus of your design philosophy to prioritise the needs and interests of the user. This involves creating transparent, honest, and straightforward interfaces that respect user autonomy. This is precisely why we’ve created the concept of “fair patterns” in our R&D Lab: interfaces that empower users to make their own, free and informed choices. And we’ve got a full library of fair patterns, easy to implement.

Simplify Opt-Out Processes

Ensure that users can easily opt out of services, unsubscribe from newsletters, and close accounts. The process should be as simple as possible, with clear instructions and minimal barriers.

Enhance Transparency

Be upfront about all terms, conditions, and costs associated with your services. Avoid hiding information in fine print or behind complex navigation paths. Make it easy for users to find and understand this information.

Improve Consent Mechanisms

Redesign consent mechanisms to ensure that users are giving explicit, informed consent for all actions. Avoid pre-checked boxes, and use clear, concise language to explain what users are agreeing to.

Educate Your Team

Educate your design and development teams about the ethical implications of dark patterns. Provide training on ethical design principles and encourage a culture of transparency and user respect. Good news: we run a monthly masterclass to learn how to detect dark patterns, and avoid creating new ones + key arguments to push back on requests to create dark patterns.

Solicit Continuous Feedback

Create channels for continuous user feedback to identify and address any new issues that arise. Use this feedback to make iterative improvements to your UX design.

The Role of Start-Ups in Combatting Dark Patterns

Start-ups have a unique opportunity to set a positive example in the industry by committing to ethical UX design practices from the outset. Here are some ways start-ups can lead the fight against dark patterns:

Building Trust from Day One

Start-ups can build trust with their users from the beginning by adopting transparent and ethical design practices. This involves being upfront about all aspects of their services and avoiding any form of deceptive design.

Creating Ethical Guidelines

Develop and implement a set of ethical guidelines for UX design that all team members must adhere to. These guidelines should outline what constitutes a dark pattern and provide alternative approaches for achieving business goals ethically.

Leveraging Technology

Utilise technology to detect and fix dark patterns. There are emerging tools and platforms designed to identify unethical design practices and provide recommendations for improvement. Start-ups can integrate these tools into their design and development processes.

Promoting Awareness

Start-ups can play a key role in raising awareness about the harmful effects of dark patterns. By sharing knowledge and best practices within the industry, they can help foster a culture of ethical design.

Conclusion

Dark patterns in UX design represent the dark side of user experience, where deceptive practices are used to manipulate and exploit users. These unethical tactics erode trust, cause financial harm, and negatively impact users’ emotional well-being. However, by identifying and addressing dark patterns, companies can create more transparent, user-friendly, and trustworthy platforms.

In a world where user experience is paramount, the true measure of success lies in designing with integrity, transparency, and respect for the user, thereby creating lasting relationships. By combatting dark patterns and prioritising ethical UX design, companies can ensure a brighter, more user-friendly digital future.