Have you ever tapped on a button or tried to close a pop-up, only to be redirected to a site you didn’t want to visit? Or ended up on a checkout page about to purchase something you didn’t intend to buy? Well, It’s not your fault. We are creatures of habit and we are used to certain patterns while browsing a website or an app. These habits are sometimes exploited to make users do things they don’t want to, which is what in the realm of UX design, we refer to as “dark patterns”.
The term was first coined by Harry Brignull in 2010. He defined it as “tricks used in websites and apps that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something.”
He composed a list of the most common dark patterns, such as getting users into difficult situations that are hard to get out of, tricking users into giving private information without their consent or guilting users into opting into something, among others.
Since then, some of these dark patterns, such as giving data without consent, have become illegal practices in countries like the UK or the US¹.The UXP2 Lab, a user experience and user research lab located at Purdue University, made a list based on Brignull’s work, identifying 5 types of dark patterns:
A minor redirection of expected functionality that may persist over one or more interactions. Nagging often manifests as a repeated intrusion during normal interaction, where the user’s desired task is interrupted one or more times by other tasks not directly related to the one the user is focusing on. They most commonly manifest as pop-ups that obscure the interface.
Impeding a task flow, making an interaction more difficult than it needs to be with the intent to dissuade a particular action.
An attempt to hide, disguise, or delay the divulging of relevant information to the user, often in order to make the user perform an action they may object to if they had knowledge of it. A common example is undisclosed fees during the checkout process.
Any manipulation of the user interface that privileges specific actions over others, thereby confusing the user or limiting discoverability of important action possibilities. The most common example of this type is to make a button or link look like it cannot be clicked.
Is it beneficial to implement dark patterns?
No. It may seem beneficial for the company that runs the website or app because it improves its conversions or sales, but most of the time it creates a long-term problem. Users are not gullible and they know when they have been tricked. This creates a lack of trust, and they will eventually leave. It also damages the perception of the brand. Users won’t hesitate to leave a bad review if they feel they have been cheated, which creates a problem for the company that needs to put its customer service department on top of damage control.
Dark patterns are constantly evolving in order to bypass state regulations. Marketing and sales websites will try to exploit human psychology in order to manipulate users toward accomplishing their business goals. Consumer groups and privacy advocates are constantly fighting against the implementation of these harmful practices, and as designers, we should always try to advocate for transparency and educate stakeholders about the negative impacts of dark patterns on their businesses.