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Dark patterns in UX

You don’t have to be a User Experience (UX) expert to spot badly-designed, frustrating and downright unhelpful user interfaces or web pages. In the industry we often refer to these bad designs as “anti-patterns”. Dark patterns, however, are something else entirely.

What are Dark patterns?

Dark patterns are anti-patterns with a nefarious purpose – intentionally flawed designs. These are carefully-crafted ‘bad’ designs; built with a pinch of psychology and a healthy dose of trickery. They are called dark, because their goal is often manipulative and used against the user, rather than for. 

You might also hear them being referred to as “The Dark Arts” or “The Dark Side”, but we’re going to avoid any Harry Potter or Star Wars references in this article and stick to “dark patterns”.

Why we’re telling you this

Dark patterns are used in various forms, not just online but in real life too. It is important to be aware of such trickery so that you don’t fall foul of any deviant intent, or at least reduce the risk of these clever ploys influencing your decision-making. 

The subject of dark patterns is huge and we’ve selected just a few cases – both physical and online – to highlight here. We feel that we should warn the reader: almost deviantly in itself, once you start reading into this extremely interesting subject it’s rather hard to stop…

Menu Psychology

There are many examples of dark patterns around us, many of which we are probably not even aware of. More often than not, the aim of using dark patterns is to maximise a company’s profits. This is achieved by using persuasive psychological techniques on customers so that they subconsciously behave how you want them to. 

New York Times writer Sarah Kershaw wrote a very interesting piece about the use of psychology in the hospitality industry –where these techniques often get applied. However, it can apply anywhere where items and their prices are listed. 

Take this menu for example:

Dark UX Patterns
First off, the prices here contain no currency sign – a money symbol reminds the customer instantly that they are spending money. Without, it takes that connection away and makes the whole process less about what the customer is losing from their pocket. Sarah noted that a 9 on its own looked “a lot more manageable” than $9 or £9, and even more rounded and manageable than an $/£8.99.

Calling the menu (or café) “Aunt Sian’s” is creating a sense of familiarity, a sense of something that is well loved; that has tradition. Humans prefer this personal connection to things and, in this case, it makes the menu/café seem that little more friendly, trusted even – suggesting these recipes have been handed down from generation to generation.

Emotive labels are also used – in this example, with “Breconshire” and “Organic Free Range”. These are vivid adjectives, creating again the sense of locality – people prefer local produce – and taking advantage of the idea that organic food is a great deal more attractive than processed foods. These “enhancers” add perceived value to the items and help convince people that eleven dollars/pounds is a reasonable price for what is simply bacon and eggs.

All of the meals have also been strategically placed. At the top is a meal costing fifteen pounds, while at the bottom is the cheapest meal at seven pounds. These are decoys that make the meals in the middle look more reasonable. This is known as price framing – and customers are more likely to go for the meals in the middle than the most expensive or cheapest options. Restaurants will actually often buy fewer ingredients for the decoys, safe in the knowledge that they will not sell very many of those meals.

As you see, these quite simple techniques – of which there are many more – can subconsciously persuade the customer to behave in a certain way and can also be applied elsewhere; online retail for example.
 

Dark Patterns on the web

It’s almost impossible to discuss the subject of dark patterns on the web without bringing up one of the best, most well-known examples – the Ryanair insurance opt-out from their 2010 website. When booking a flight, there was a drop-down field for buying travel insurance along with your flight. The default option on the box reads: “Please select a country of residence”. When a user clicked on this drop-down, the option: “No Travel Insurance Required” was buried in an alphabetical list of countries between Latvia and Lithuania. 

Dark patterns UX
Ryanair’s drop-down travel insurance menu

This is an excellent example of the “anti-scan” trick, playing on the fact that normal users quickly scan over content on the web rather than reading it fully.

Many users will simply see the words “Please select a country of residence” and naturally assume it’s just another benign question on the form. Hiding the opt-out message in the list reduces the chance that such a user will see it and realise what they’re actually selecting – arguably an anti-scan trick within an anti-scan trick.

Further to all this, it’s interesting to note what happened when a user tried to submit this form without selecting anything. Only the drop-down box was highlighted, drawing the eye to the innocuous: “Please select a country of residence” message and not the label explaining what the user is selecting.

We should note that Ryanair have since made some changes to this form – possibly as a result of experts and critics using them as an example – but there are still many other examples of intentionally misleading design out there.
 

Opt-out vs. opt-in

It’s well documented that requiring users to opt-out of something, rather than opt-in, will result in vastly increased numbers of users choosing those options – albeit accidentally. Pre-selected defaults for marketing emails or postage, hidden costs, or items added to a shopping basket without warning for example (the “Sneak into Basket” pattern), are seen all over the web.

A good example of this is the final basket on Amazon, where they pre-select the most expensive postage option for you!

Dark patterns

Amazon’s checkout process

In conclusion

The two questions that people come away with when they learn about dark patterns are “Is this evil?” and “Should I do this?”. The simple answer to both is, “Yes. No. Maybe. It depends.” Is a dark pattern still a dark pattern if it is used to increase donations on a charity website for example? Yes of course, but obviously the moral dilemma here is more complicated!

Competitive corporations, target-based metrics, and plain greed make these techniques very tempting to use. At Box UK we’re passionate about UX, so we naturally think of the user first in order to make their journey an easy and enjoyable experience – to create experiences that users will want to return to. Unfortunately, not all agencies or companies think the same way.

Many of the techniques used can be of benefit to the user, influencing them to proceed along a certain path through your website, drawing the eye to the main call-to-action on a page, etc. The ‘dark’ in the name refers to the intent of the designer. On the flip-side, the same techniques can often be used positively – Stephen Anderson is just one leading UX practitioner who focuses on how some of these techniques can instead be used for positive and engaging end-user experiences, and we strongly recommend checking out some of his work.

What you should take away from this article, and any other further study of dark patterns is this: be aware of how you’re influencing your users. As a designer almost every decision you make will influence the end user in one way or another, so be cognisant of this.

Never underestimate the power of the Dark Side.

And we were doing so well…

What Do You Think?

Have you noticed dark patterns on the web? Or used them yourself? We’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic so please, get in touch using the comments box below.

Further Reading

About the author

Sian Prescott

Sian Prescott

Sian Prescott is a Software Tester at Box UK. A self-confessed internet obsessive, she is passionate about how beautifully imaginative and innovative the online world is. Particularly interested in social media and the way in which it encourages creativity and spreads ideas, Sian is fascinated with how the internet can bring people together through their shared loves.

About the author

Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas

With 10 years’ experience as a front-end developer for Box UK, Dylan brings this extensive technical knowledge to the UX team. Having a hand in nearly every site that Box UK has ever built, he applies his experience to produce rapid, cost-effective user-interface designs and prototypes. His interests and expertise lie in HTML5 and CSS3, responsive websites, user-centred interfaces, and the psychological aspects of web design.

Comments

Federico Sasso

Nov 22nd, 2012

Good article! It outlines an aspect of web design I never found covered elsewhere. I always felt annoyed by Ryanair’s little trick. Once you know it, you remember (at least I can as a frequent flyer on their London route) and avoid it, but no one likes feeling gamed for just one euro. I keep using their company because of the cheap prizes, but having a comparable alternative such “poor” tactics would backfire. To me, such dark patterns ARE evil, companies should care more about ethics even concerning small details.

Paul Rissen

Nov 22nd, 2012

Interesting stuff. It reminds me a lot of the ‘Machiavellian Lens’ from the Design with Intent toolkit: http://requisitevariety.co.uk/design-with-intent-toolkit/

Aled Ceri Owen

Nov 22nd, 2012

I’ve been collecting screenshots of nefarious interfaces for a while, but I wasn’t aware of the ‘dark pattern’ label. This post has given me the push I needed to write about them. Thank you!

Dylan Thomas

Nov 22nd, 2012

Aled: It’s a vast and interesting subject to dive into. I’d love to read your opinions. Please send us a link when it’s online.

Jan 1st, 0001

Sian

Nov 23rd, 2012

Hi paul – thanks for your comment, the Design with Intent toolkit is an excellent resource to mention too! Especially as you can download the toolkit pdfs. The Machiavellian Lens references some other interesting aspects and techniques/considerations with design, such as functional obsolescence, so called ‘antifeatures’ and degrading performance. Really makes you think! Hi Federico – thanks for adding your comment! I think what is really interesting about this is how much these ‘dark arts’ appear in many different aspects of life, not just online. There’s a lot of resource to read up on, we have just looked at the tip of the iceberg! Hi Aled – as Dylan said, we would love to see your conclusions after you have collated some interfaces. Perhaps we could have a discussion chat on Twitter, and get other people’s opinions. Thanks!

Federico Sasso

Nov 26th, 2012

Hi, as an aside note, Ryanair cited little trick is still in place today. I got to tell you I started sharpening my eye for such “dark patterns” after reading your article, Thank you! :)

Dylan Thomas

Nov 27th, 2012

Hi Frederico, Ryanair no-longer hide the “no insurance” option in the middle of the drop-down list, but you’re correct – it’s still not clear when scanning the page that you are opting to buy travel-insurance.

Jan 1st, 0001

Jan 1st, 0001

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