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What Is Dark Pattern Design? You Really Should Know About This!

2020-05-11

If you’re part of the web designer/developer world, chances are you’ve heard of dark patterns and dark pattern design. You might be familiar with the term, but you might also have questions about what this type of design is, what it looks like, and why you need to know about it.

Do any of these questions spark your interest? If so, read on to learn everything you need to know about dark pattern design.

What Are Dark Patterns?

A dark pattern is a type of user interface. It’s carefully designed to trick a user into doing something they might not have done on their own. An example might be signing up for a recurring bill or “choosing” to add something to their final purchase.

Harry Brignull coined this term back in 2010. He also created a website called DarkPatterns.org that is dedicated to keeping track of some of the worst examples of dark patterns on the internet.

What Should You Know About Dark Pattern Design?

It’s important to note that a dark pattern is not a design flaw that results from a designer being lazy or inept. Instead, it’s strategically crafted with a clear understanding of human psychology in mind.

In general, dark patterns are not designed with thought for the user’s best interests; instead, they’re designed to help the client or website owner to achieve a specific goal.

There are some other essential facts you ought to know about dark patterns and dark pattern design, including the following:

Dark Patterns Are Problematic

Dark patterns definitely fall into something of a grey area when it comes to web design ethics. Most examples of dark patterns (more on those down below) are not considered to be illegal. However, governments (especially EU governments) are starting to crack down on certain types of dark patterns in an effort to try and offer better protection to consumers.

At the end of the day, whether they’re legal or not, dark patterns are problematic because they nudge the user to make a decision that they don’t necessarily want to make. Instead of creating a transparent, user-centred experience, dark patterns (and the designers and brands that use them) have the exact opposite intention.

Dark Patterns Take Advantage of the Way Most People Consume Information

The primary reason that dark patterns are so effective is the fact that they take advantage of how most people consume information online. In general, people are not carefully reading everything they encounter when they visit a website. They skim and try to get the main points so they can complete their purchase or move on to the next website as quickly as possible. This leads to them being taken advantage of and agreeing to things they normally wouldn’t.

Dark Patterns Provide Some Benefits to Brands

The reason many brands rely on dark patterns is that they, initially at least, can provide some benefits to them. When you trick customers into doing things they wouldn’t choose to do on their own, you’ll often see higher conversion rates. This, in turn, leads to higher revenues and more opportunities for business growth.

The problem, of course, is that what results in short-term conversion increases won’t necessarily lead to long-term conversion increases. A business might see a boost initially from using dark patterns in their web design, but it’s unlikely that the boost will continue once people realise they were duped.

Why Should You Be Aware of Dark Pattern Design?

As a designer or developer, it’s imperative that you’re aware of dark pattern design. You should have a clear understanding of what certain brands might have commissioned their designers and developers to do try and lure in more customers and increase their conversions. If you know about dark patterns, you’ll be better equipped when it comes to spotting them on other people’s websites. You’ll also be able to avoid falling into the trap of using them yourself.

Build Credibility

When you avoid using dark patterns, you can show your website visitors (or the people who visit your clients’ websites) that you value their privacy. These days, more than ever before, folks have concerns about internet security and what to feel that their personal information is protected online. By shielding them from accidentally giving away this information, you can build trust and foster long-lasting relationships with your (or your clients’) website visitors.

Remember, people don’t like to be tricked. Even if they fall for a dark pattern at first and don’t raise a complaint right away, eventually, they’ll realize they were duped. This might happen when they see a recurring charge on their bank account, for example, or when they find that they’ve signed up for a service they’re not actually interested in using.

Build Lasting Client Relationships

When incidents like this happen, website visitors will do whatever they can to try and get out of the agreement or prevent their personal information from continuing to be shared. They’ll likely make complaints or make an effort to badmouth your or your clients’ websites online. This isn’t good for business or your bottom line. One might have seen a boost in revenue initially due to dark patterns, but they can ultimately cause more harm than good in the long run.

In the case of client work, the use of dark patterns could, long-term, make it harder for a designer or developer to retain clients. After all, if the client sees a drop in revenue because people are bad-mouthing their brand or stopping visiting their website, the client might decide to hire a different designer and take things in a different direction. That’s why it pays to avoid using questionable tactics (and to counsel clients on why dark patterns are not a good idea).

What Are Examples of Dark Pattern Design?

There are lots of ways that designers and developers can use dark patterns to try and trick website visitors. The following are some of the most well-known examples of dark patterns:

Trick Questions

Trick questions are one of the most commonly used examples of dark patterns. Website visitors will often come across these questions when they’re trying to fill out a form. The question will be worded in such a way that, when it’s skimmed (which is the way most people read these questions), it tricks the user into giving an answer that they didn’t intend to give.

Sneak into Basket

Many websites are guilty of using the “sneak into basket” technique to try and make additional sales.

Think of when you’re out shopping with your child and they sneak something they want into the basket and you don’t notice until you’re already paying (or until you get home from the shop altogether). This is the same thing, but online, and it’s a business sneaking the item into your basket, not a child who doesn’t know any better.

When websites use this approach, they’ll sneak an additional item into your basket or cart at some point in your purchasing journey. There will be some kind of opt-out button or checkbox, but it won’t be obvious, and most people will accidentally make the purchase without wanting the item in the first place.

Roach Motel

The “Roach Motel” technique is all about creating a situation that’s easy to get into but hard to leave (as is the case with a roach motel). The most popular way that websites will use this dark pattern is with a premium subscription model.

You might be automatically opted into the premium subscription, for example, and then have to jump through a lot of hoops to get out of it. Because it’s so difficult to do, a lot of people will end up just keeping the subscription because they don’t want to do the extra work required to cancel it.

Privacy Zuckering

The term “Privacy Zuckering” is named after Facebook creator Mark Zuckerburg. Facebook has come under fire repeatedly for questionable practices when it comes to collecting users’ information and distributing it without their knowledge or express permission.

Privacy Zuckering, in short, involves tricking a user into publicly sharing information about themselves or sharing more than they initially intended to share.

Price Comparison Prevention

As the name suggests, price comparison prevention is all about making it difficult for website users to check the price of an item from another retailer. This prevents consumers from making informed decisions when they shop. When price comparison is hard to do, many consumers will simply by the item from the site they’re already visiting, even if they’re not actually getting the best deal.

Misdirection

Misdirection in web design involves purposefully pulling your attention from one thing to something else. This, in turn, prevents you from realizing that you’re being tricked into something (agreeing to a subscription, for example, or agreeing to terms and conditions that you wouldn’t normally be okay with).

Airlines like Ryanair have been criticised for using misdirection to trick website visitors into buying travel insurance. When the customer is purchasing a flight, they’ll be asked to choose their country of residence, which they often do without thinking. What they don’t realize, though, is that the question is about travel insurance, and they can click a “no travel insurance required” option from the drop-down menu. If they don’t catch this, which most users don’t, they’ll end up buying insurance even when it’s not needed.

Hidden Costs

Hidden costs are unexpected charges that pop up when you’re getting ready to check out. They’re often small enough that many people don’t notice or question them. They’re usually unnecessary, though, or might be inflated to put more money in the website owner’s pockets. Examples include things like taxes and delivery fees.

Bait and Switch

The “Bait and Switch” tactic comes into play when a website user thinks they’re agreeing to one thing when, in reality, they’re agreeing to another. For example, users might see a pop-up window with an “X” in the corner and assume that they need to click that “X” to make the window go away. In reality, though, clicking it might actually deploy an upgrade or a cause them to agree to something else they didn’t want.

Confirmshaming

Confirmshaming is done with the intent of causing a user to feel guilt when they don’t agree to something. For example, the opt-out button might be hyperlinked with language like, “No, I don’t like saving money” or “No, I don’t care about helping others.”

Disguised Ads

Disguised ads are pieces of content or navigations that are disguised as advertisements. When people click on them, they get directed somewhere on the site that they didn’t plan on going.

Forced Continuity

Forced continuity is one of the most well-known types of dark pattern design. It involves forcing someone into a recurring subscription (and often making it difficult for them to get out of it). For example, when someone signs up for a free trial and they put in their credit card information, their card often gets charged when the trial ends without them being aware of it.

Friend Spam

Friend spam involves a website visitor being asked for their email address or for permission to access their social media account.

Initially, when people agree to this, they assume that they’re getting a desirable outcome, such as finding their friends online. They might also assume that they’ve just found an easy way to get signed up for a particular online service. In reality, though, their contacts end up getting spammed with some kind of advertising message that says it’s from you (which tricks them into opening it).

Learn More About Dark Pattern Design Today

As you can see, dark pattern design is definitely something you ought to avoid in your web design or development practices. This is especially true if you want to forge long-lasting relationships with your website visitors, or if you want those who visit your clients’ websites to trust and continue working with them (which, in turn, will likely lead to more work for you).

To learn more about dark pattern design, or other important web design principles and best practices, check out some of the other design-related resources on our site today.