Dark patterns in UX design: Why should you avoid them?
What are dark patterns in UX design? Learn about the different types of dark patterns and ways to avoid them in your design projects.
Written by RamotionNov 10, 202212 min read
Last updated: Aug 22, 2023
The success of a product or service, particularly in the digital environment, highly relies on the overall user experience. If the users are satisfied with the experience they get while interacting with a product, they will keep coming back to it. Not just that, they will also spread the word about it, bringing more customers, and hence more business. However, success is typically measured in return on investment, conversion rate, and other money-related metrics. Therefore, good user experience is often directly associated with the profit being generated. This myopic view creates a limited – and wrong – idea about UI/UX design, thus leading to illegal means and unethical practices with little or no concern about a user’s interests, needs, and expectations.
UX designers, when tempted to go for more money, tend to overlook key principles of user experience design, and end up frustrating the users, instead of making their lives easy. Cluttered designs, overwhelming content, a number of advertisements, and attempts to generalize user experience by creating standard solutions are all examples of such endeavors. One such practice is the use of dark patterns in UX design. Dark UX patterns are one of the several deceptive and unethical strategies used by organizations to make more money out of the user journey.
In this article, we introduce the concept of dark patterns, along with the reasons to avoid their use in your projects. We also share some of the common dark patterns and alternative ways in which the customer experience can be enriched.
- Defining dark patterns in UX design
- Reasons to avoid dark patterns
- Common types of dark patterns in UI/UX design
- How to avoid dark patterns in UX
Read along as we explore how dark patterns work and why is it important to stay safe from them, despite their tempting nature.
Defining dark patterns in UX design
A dark pattern in UX design is the name given to specific deceptive features designed to take advantage of users in particular situations. These types of design patterns invoke strong feelings in the users that pull them to the product or service. However, these feelings are harmful to the users, and only end up giving more profit to the business.
What is a dark pattern in UX?
A dark pattern is a feature used by organizations to take advantage of users in a deceptive way. When it comes to digital products and services, dark patterns trick users into actions that they do not intend to perform.
Decisions that give rise to such design patterns never consider the benefit of the users and can, therefore, not add to the quality of user experience. Dark patterns are a product of purely capitalistic thought and are used to manipulate users in various ways.
Why do companies use dark patterns?
Despite the fact that the term dark patterns has a negative connotation, many organizations still use them on their websites, mobile applications, and other digital products and services. A typical example is an automatic subscription to newsletters and promotional emails that the users never even ask for. No one likes receiving dozens of promotional emails every week, especially when these emails are coming from unknown sources. This creates a bad image of the organization in the minds of users.
It is important to note that these deceptive user interfaces not only harm the users by creating a bad experience for them but are also detrimental to the business. In the next section, we explain the reasons why designers should try their level best to avoid dark patterns in their projects.
Reasons to avoid dark patterns
The practice of deceiving and tricking users is never a good idea in UX design. Successful designers and experienced researchers always advise against the use of such patterns as these come with ethical and legal concerns, jeopardizing the overall user experience. To make sure that your product or service helps the users instead of frustrating them, you should always avoid dark patterns in your designs.
Why are dark patterns unethical?
There are several reasons why dark patterns must be avoided.
- Customer loyalty gets impacted
- User experience is ruined
- Brand image gets harmed
- Negative feedback becomes a norm
- Dark patterns are illegal
There are several reasons why you should not deceive your users or target customers. For starters, this leaves a negative impact on customer loyalty and also results in bad UX design.
Customer loyalty gets impacted
Customer loyalty is earned the hard way, but losing customers is not as hard. Deception is one of the easiest ways to make your users feel frustrated, thus leading to a decrease in loyalty. No one likes to be tricked, and the same holds true for your customers. If you create dark patterns and deceive your users, they will develop bad feelings about your product or service, and start looking for alternatives. This will cause great problems in customer retention, and thus impact the progress of your business. It is, therefore, advisable to avoid dark patterns in UX design and instead focus on transparency.
User experience is ruined
One of the key objectives of a user interface with the aim of providing a good experience is to make the lives of users easy, less frustrating, and simple. If a product or service ensures a smooth and easy customer experience, it will indeed be a successful one. With dark patterns, the users are forced to interact with content that they do not want to, and their consent is not even taken into consideration. This results in frustration, thus creating a terrible user experience. A bad user experience has long-lasting effects on the design, and also on the business as a whole.
Brand image gets harmed
All businesses need to present a good image in the hearts and minds of their target audience, particularly in the digital environment. When organizations fail to keep up a good image, it results in online users reduction, impacting the business on a lot of levels. When the users see dark patterns in an interface, they feel deceived and hurt, and, therefore, start developing negative feelings towards the brand. This harms the image of the organization which can be detrimental to the business.
Negative feedback becomes a norm
Customer trust is really important in getting better feedback and attracting more users. When the brand image gets harmed and the loyalty of the user base gets impacted, their frustration then becomes visible in various ways. One of the most common displays of these feelings is in the form of negative feedback. Customers use every platform they can to let others know about their feelings, and this is extremely harmful to the business. When the users spot anything unethical or frustrating with a design, they share their experiences with others, taking your potential customers away.
Dark patterns are illegal
Using dark patterns to trick people is tempting as it can give more profit. However, this can leave you, as a designer and as an organization, in a complicated position. Using dark patterns is not only unethical, but it is also illegal. The state of California is working on banning the use of dark patterns by companies, to ensure customer privacy and protection. This law is just one example, which will surely be extended to other states. Once in place, it will be a requirement for all organizations to ensure that they avoid dark patterns at all costs.
Common types of dark patterns in UI/UX design
In order to completely understand the problems with dark patterns and avoid them in your projects, it is important to look at the different types of patterns used by different organizations. The websites and applications that apply these patterns, spread them throughout the user journey in a way that is not easy to detect. However, if you are a designer, you can spot a dark pattern in a relatively easy manner.
What are some common types of dark patterns?
Some of the common dark patterns in UX are as follows.
- Hidden costs
- Forced continuity
- Disguised ads
- Roach motel
- Price comparison prevention
- Bait and switch
- Triggering fear
There are various types of dark patterns, such as getting social media permissions without users’ consent, asking a trick question, bombarding users with advertisements and emails, etc. Some of the common types are discussed below.
This is one of the most common dark patterns and is used by some of the biggest businesses, particularly when it comes to e-commerce. Most of the time, when customers are looking to make a purchase, the cost shown is remarkably less – too good to be true at times. However, as soon as they reach the final step to complete the purchase, the cost increases by adding taxes, shipping costs, and other such fees.
Forced continuity is another dark pattern that is quite frequently adopted by digital services, particularly those based on a subscription model. Most of the time, the users are asked to provide payment information while signing up for the trial period, and later they are automatically charged, without any notification.
Disguised ads serve as another great example of dark patterns. This pattern is applied in a deceptive and hidden manner. The advertising and promotional content on a website or application are presented in a way that is similar to useful content, so the users click on the ads.
Roach motel is one of the darkest patterns in user interfaces as it is highly deceptive and extremely frustrating. This pattern is applied in a way that the users can easily become customers but ending a service, or getting out of this motel, is challenging. For example, when you subscribe to a service and then cannot find a way to cancel it, or the cancellation option doesn’t even exist.
Price comparison prevention
Another type of dark pattern commonly applied by online platforms is when there is no option or way to compare prices between different products, services, and plans. This way the users are deceived by hiding access to useful information that can help them in making a more informed decision.
Bait and switch
Bait and switch is a way of giving fake information which is applied by designing the interface in an unfamiliar way or just simply changing the content at different stages. For example, clicking the “X” option on an advertisement might lead you to the ad’s social media site, instead of closing the ad.
Dark patterns are also applied by triggering different types of fears in the users’ minds. For example, providing them with made-up social proof or deceptive information indicates that if they do not opt-in to a service or decide to opt-out, they’d be missing out on big savings and advantages.
How to avoid dark patterns in UX
It is true that for the success of a product or service, gaining a user’s attention is critical. While unethical ways, such as the use of dark patterns and asking trick questions, are effective in attracting customers, these are not the only solutions. There are several ethical and equally – if not more – effective strategies that can be applied to gain a competitive advantage and gain success in the business, without compromising customer loyalty.
What can designers do to avoid dark patterns?
Here are some ways in which designers can avoid using dark patterns.
- Keep things transparent
- Ensure ethical values in design
- Adopt comprehensive design systems
- Prioritize users over business
UI/UX designers should always try to avoid dark patterns. Some of the ways in which this can be achieved are as follows.
Keep things transparent
The best way to earn the trust and loyalty of customers is to be transparent with them. Instead of trapping and tricking the users, the best way is to ask for consent. For example, when you want to attract more subscribers to your newsletter, instead of discreetly adding the website visitors to the list of your subscribers, you should ask them to opt-in or out. Transparency is the key to success in creating good user interfaces as this gives more satisfaction and control to the users.
Ensure ethical values in design
Whenever you’re tempted to use dark patterns in UX design, go back to your values. This is one of the best ways to avoid any unethical activity. You can start by asking yourself whether you would be satisfied with a user journey full of dark patterns and deceptive content. Putting yourself in the customers’ shoes can always bring clarity to the design process. This way you can address numerous ethical concerns in your designs.
Adopt comprehensive design systems
Design systems play a critical role in defining design policies and guiding the development of products and services. Therefore, when creating a design system, you should make sure that it addresses all the details, including strict guidelines against the use of dark patterns. When this practice is made a part of a design team’s policies, there is little possibility that such an unethical practice will become a part of the system.
Prioritize users over business
The best way to approach any UI/UX problem is to go back to the basic design principles. Remember, the top priority of a designer, and any design solution is the user or customer. Whenever you identify a dark pattern in your design project, you should stop and ask a simple question: Are we prioritizing the users of the business by applying this strategy? If the answer is the latter, which almost always will be the case with dark patterns, then you need to get rid of this pattern and find an alternative. This will help you stay on track and make sure that the needs of the users are met at all times.
It is critical that designers should be aware of the ethical and moral concerns in the field of UI/UX, irrespective of the projects they are working on, the organization they are a part of or the level of experience they have. When creating any design solution, there are certain rules and standards that must be followed. The “first, do no harm” principle applies to the design as much as medical science or any other field. When your projects start to frustrate and trick users, making their lives difficult, that is when you have to go back to the basics and ensure that you uphold the values of ethics and morality.
Avoiding dark patterns is one of the most important tasks for designers, particularly in the highly competitive digital market, where the urge to get ahead of others is quite real. The pressure resulting from this competition can force designers to make unethical decisions, and find quick fixes in the form of dark patterns. However, this is not the right approach, as it harms the brand image, negatively impacts the user experience, and drives the existing and potential customers away from your design. It is important to not only understand the nature of design patterns but also learn the ways in which these can be avoided. In this article, we covered some of the basic strategies that you can use to stay away from dark patterns. These strategies can serve as a foundation for your projects and also become a critical part of your design systems.