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Have you ever tried to close one of those annoying pop-ups? Those where you click in the tiny little “x” only to realize it was all a ruse, and you’ve just clicked on the actual ad? Yeah… We’ve all been there, buddy. These Sith Lords of UX Design are called dark patterns.
These and so many other “gimmicks” are part of a group of patterns that have been gradually making the web a much more annoying and dangerous place called Dark UX Patterns.
With this blog post, I intend to give you a quick overlook of what are Dark UX Patterns, what regulation is in place to protect you against these practices, some of the most common types of Dark Patterns, as well as what we can do to protect ourselves in the digital landscape. In the end, I’ll also leave you some additional resources, so you can proactively continue your learning journey.
“Dark UX Patterns, you say?” Yes, dear reader, let me tell you more about them
This term was first coined by Harry Brignull, a UX specialist and creator of the website darkpatterns.org, which, to this day, “seeks to raise public awareness of deceptive digital practices.”
Essentially they can be defined as practices used across different technology mediums to either nudge or straight-up force users into taking a business desired action. These actions range from fooling you into giving up your personal data for commercial ends to tricking you into buying something that you didn’t intend to or subscribing to services and communications unwillingly.
By now, you can probably see why these are a massive problem in the digital age: no one wants to have their free will be reduced for the sake of some business profit.
“Well, shouldn’t it be illegal then?” Yes, dear reader, it should, and some of it is
Some types of dark patterns are considered forms of fraud in the USA, and you’re probably acquainted with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which also protects users from some nefarious practices. But many types of Dark UX are not regulated because it is difficult to create laws over possible psychological effects of supposedly bad-intentioned actions.
Let’s go through some examples:
- Roach Motel
A type of situation that is deceivingly easy to get into, but a nightmare to get out of.
Normally these appear as services and subscriptions. Think about the times you’ve tried to unsubscribe from a newsletter, but you can’t seem to find the “unsubscribe,” as it is camouflaged among superfluous information. And then, when you see it, you are redirected to a 404 page or the Homepage.
But the most flagrant and ridiculous Roach Motel I’ve come by is the maze created by Amazon to keep users from deleting their accounts. Here’s the video
The old bait-and-switch… old because it has been used outside of the internet context. Basically, these are patterns that trick users into foreseeing a logical outcome, when in reality, a completely different result is achieved. It violently breaks the User Control and Freedom UX design principle.
For example, some years ago, there was some backlash when Microsoft essentially forced users to update to Windows 10. How did they do it? On this specific pop-up, the “x” button on the window did not mean “close the pop-up” as it does in every other case, but “update my windows.”
3. Disguised Ads
Another classic: ad designs that are so well camouflaged in the organic content of the pages, that it misleads users into clicking on them.
This might even lead to users downloading files or subscribing to communications unknowingly.
“But how can I avoid these mind games?” Well, dear reader, that’s a good question
As said by Brignull:
If you know what cognitive biases are and the kind of tricks that can be used to change your mind to persuade you to do things, then you’re less likely to have them trick you.
The best we can do is to be as educated on the subject as possible, so these techniques become more predictable and, consequently, avoidable.
If you want to be a little more “hands-on,” you can always boycott companies known for using Dark UX Patterns or simply call them out when you see them. We all know that word-of-mouth is extremely powerful these days. Who knows? Maybe a tweet can make a difference.
At this point, I feel like I need to address the designers reading this post. It was the great designer Charles Eames who said:
The role of the designer is that of a good, thoughtful host anticipating the needs of his guests.
I believe that we, as designers, have a responsibility towards both our users and our businesses. It may not be easy to always make everyone happy, but it is essential to find an ethical balance where everyone wins, at least in the long term.
In my short career as a UX/UI Designer, I’ve never been put in a situation where some kind of Dark Pattern was suggested, but I like to believe that, if that day ever comes, my (sometimes) creative brain will find a solution to the problem at hand that doesn’t compromise the values of my work.
As a bonus, I leave you some additional readings and materials on the topic of Dark UX Patterns: