Deceptive Design: When UX Goes Bad


Spider's web (dark pattern metaphor)

By Claire Knights

Claire Knights is a digital strategist and designer. Get in touch to talk about keeping your website safe.

Claire Knights

UX (user experience) design has always been used to guide our behaviour. But how do you make sure your business doesn’t stray over the line from influence to manipulation?

Have you ever struggled to cancel an online subscription?

Or felt pressured into buying something because ‘50 other people are looking at this right now’?

You’ve stumbled across a deceptive design.

What are deceptive designs?

Deceptive designs (also known as ‘dark patterns’) are design tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something.

First identified by user experience specialist Harry Brignull in 2010, it calls out a digital design trend that’s becoming more and more common.

So what do they look like and how do they work?

Let’s dig into some examples.

Examples of deceptive designs

Harry Brignull lists 12 different types of deceptive design on his website, Deceptive Design.

Here are some common deceptive designs you’ve probably come across.

The ‘roach motel’. This is where “The design makes it very easy for you to get into a certain situation, but then makes it hard for you to get out of it”. If you’ve been frustrated trying to cancel a subscription you’ve experienced the roach motel.

Trick questions. Often found on checkout pages to mislead you into agreeing to receive marketing emails, typically “a series of checkboxes is shown, and the meaning of the checkboxes is alternated so that ticking the first one means “opt out” and the second means “opt in”.

Sense of urgency. This is a design pattern that plays on your fear of missing out to get you to buy more than you wanted, more quickly. You’ll recognise this from sites that tell you “3 other people are looking at this right now”. While it could be argued that urgency messaging isn’t inherently a deceptive design, it often leaves users with a sense of distrust of the business: “Is there really one room left? Or are they just making this up to make me book now?”

How do deceptive designs work?

Deceptive designs work by playing on the fact that we’re in a hurry when we’re online.

As Harry Brignull explains: “you don’t read every word on every page — you skim read and make assumptions.”

Deceptive designs also tap into what is often called our “lizard brain”, the ancient part of our mind driven by emotion—think the FOMO that kicks in when a website tells you “10 other people have this in their basket”.

Companies that use deceptive designs

It’s not just companies selling diet pills in dark corners of the internet that are using deceptive designs.

These design tricks are openly employed by some of the biggest companies on the planet.

Amazon, for example, makes it very hard for you to delete your account (you’ll need to hunt hard for the right information on their website and put in an email request, then follow it up with a confirmation email).

In 2018, BBC news featured an item: Facebook and Google use ‘dark patterns’ around privacy settings, report says.

The article reported the findings of an investigation by the Norwegian Consumer Council, which concluded that “users are often given the illusion of control through their privacy settings, when they are not getting it” and that Facebook, Google and Microsoft use deceptive designs “to push users away from privacy-friendly options on their services in an ‘unethical’ way”.

Why are deceptive designs bad?

In a world where some of the business’s biggest names are using deceptive designs (and seemingly doing very well from it), you might be wondering what’s so bad about them?

After all, UX design has always aimed at guiding human behaviour.

Isn’t it up to consumers to pay better attention and keep their wits about them?

The problem in the age of digital media is that the balance of power between consumers and digital businesses has shifted dramatically.

With teams of 100s of coders creating algorithms perfectly designed to adapt to exploit your weaknesses, it’s no longer a level playing field.

You can read more about the one-sided nature of using the internet in the superb book ‘Indistractable’ by Nir Eyal:

“Reading ‘Indistractable’ helped me to understand how the internet giants are working so hard to manipulate our online behaviour for their own ends. You’re not weak or stupid for falling for their tricks, it’s carefully designed and overseen by huge teams. It’s like a fight you can’t win that you didn’t realise you were fighting in the first place”

Mark – Managing Director, Consider

Avoid deceptive designs for sustainable business growth

There are a few reasons to avoid using deceptive designs (apart from a desire to operate your business in an ethical way).

First, customers are getting more digitally savvy all the time and are more able to spot when they’re being tricked or misled.

Like all “hacks”, you might get some quick results by using deceptive designs, but it won’t be long before your customers are on social media telling the world about your terrible unsubscribe process.

If you value long term business growth and brand reputation, it makes sense to treat your customers with the honesty and respect you would wish to be treated yourself.

Second, there’s a growing trend towards better protection for users of digital products—both from tech companies and legislation.

Apple has recently introduced default settings on the iPhone that are geared towards protecting users’ privacy.

European legislation in particular is moving towards greater safeguarding of consumer rights when it comes to digital products. (Facebook recently threatened to pull out of Europe because of regulations preventing them from transferring Europeans’ data to US-based servers.)

As with many other aspects of business, the best way to create sustainable digital growth is to avoid cheap tricks and help your customers achieve their goals as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Ethical UX design

Unlike deceptive design, good UX design guides user behaviour in positive ways—it helps users complete tasks as quickly and easily as possible and avoid frustration.

Take the Duolingo language-learning app for example. By helping you sign up and get started quickly and easily, it does a great job of helping its users feel “successful”. (Behaviour scientist and author of Tiny Habits BJ Fogg is quoted as saying “If you don’t feel successful using a tech tool, you won’t continue using it” in this article from Wired: How to Spot—and Avoid—Dark Patterns on the Web.)

How we can help: digital design for good

At Consider, we aim to create great digital designs that truly benefit your customers as well as your business.

We design and create honest digital products that build trust in your brand and drive genuine customer loyalty—which all adds up to sustainable long term business growth.

Get in touch to discuss your digital design needs with us.

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