Ethical UX and Dark Patterns

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ethical ux and dark patterns

Dark patterns are features of online interface design, crafted to intentionally force or manipulate users into doing things they would not otherwise do under normal circumstances. These tactics, drawn from extensive behavioral psychology research, benefit the website’s business and are unethical to use. Soon, they may also be illegal: legislation has recently been introduced to prohibit the use of dark patterns. It pays for marketers to know what they are and to avoid them.

Examples of dark patterns

You’ve probably experienced one of the most frequent types of dark pattern: the frustrating disguised ad that pretends to be a video or other content to get you to click on it. Other examples of dark pattern use include:

  • Sneak into basket – the site sneaks something into your cart through the use of an opt-out radio button or check box
  • Privacy Zuckering – named after the infamous Facebook CEO, this entails tricking people to publicly share more information than intended
  • Misdirection – Using design to focus your attention on one thing in order to distract your attention from another
  • Confirmshaming – Shaming the user into opting into something using clever wording in the option to decline
  • Obstruction – Making it easy to sign up for a recurring charge or subscription, but hard to cancel

Abuses of power

Twitter users are sharing dark patterns as they find them with the handle @darkpatterns. Take a look at the Hall of Shame to see what’s been reported. TurboTax may have the dubious honor of employing deception at every possible turn to scam users into paying to file their taxes when it should have been free.

Dark patterns are prevalent

A Princeton University study recently combed through 53,000 product pages from 11,000 shopping websites to characterize and quantify the prevalence of dark patterns – that is, designs that trick the user into doing things like clicking a link to subscribe to a service, or hiding the “Close Account” link with a myriad of other links to make it harder to leave the site. Here’s what they found:

  • 1,818 instances of dark patterns on shopping websites, which together represent 15 types of dark patterns
  • The patterns were present on 1,254 of the 11,000 shopping websites – approximately 11.1%
  • Shopping websites that were more popular, according to Alexa rankings, were more likely to feature dark patterns
  • A total of 234 instances of deceptive dark patterns were found across 183 websites
  • 22 third-party entities provided shopping websites with the ability to create dark patterns on their sites

Legislation to combat the problem

U.S. Senators Mark R. Warner and Deb Fischer have introduced legislation in Congress aimed at prohibiting the use of dark patterns. The Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction (DETOUR) Act seeks to curb manipulative dark pattern behavior by prohibiting the largest online platforms (those with more than 100 million monthly active users) from relying on user interfaces that intentionally impair user autonomy, decision-making or choice.

UX and UI: The ethical dilemma of dark patterns

While the use of dark patterns may not be illegal at this time, there are certainly some concerns about the ethics of employing them in UX and UI design. Let’s look at the differences:

  • UX, or user experience design, identifies pain points and user needs in a web design, creates a prototype for solving those issues, validates the prototype through testing and then builds a product that brings resolution to those issues.
  • UI, or user interface design, looks at the visual design of the site (the look and feel, personality and brand) and considers how people will interact with that design.

UX designers could be considered the architects of macro-interactions, while UI designers are more the makers of micro-interactions. However, both play a role in dark pattern tactics. UX design should carve out a path for the user by putting their needs first. It’s the path the user expects, not a design strategy that takes advantage of the user by misleading them or by trapping them in a maze of confusion from which they can’t escape. Likewise, UI design should not be undertaken to use the site’s look and feel – its colors, fonts, and other design elements – to manipulate the user into making potentially harmful choices.

Our best defense against dark patterns use – as designers and users – is awareness of this unethical behavior. Companies risk their reputations and the goodwill of their customers by employing dark pattern tactics that sabotage the user. In addition to losing customers, they may incur negative press, or be shamed on social media, finding the consequences outweigh the benefits of such designs.

When planning, designing and prototyping your next project, ask Signal keeping the user’s best interests at heart.

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