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Dark designs are hurting your customers and your business

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As professional designers we continually endeavour to captivate and engage consumers, trying to to create the best possible experience for the end-user. Why? Because we know that the quality of the user experience will make or break a sale.

However, some designers take a different approach, whether it’s because of pressure from clients or internal stakeholders, or the task of designing to best practice is just too much work, the design ends up trying to trick the user into buying a product.

These unethical design techniques have been dubbed “dark designs”, and they only exist to try and cajole the online consumer into doing something they don't want to do, either by confusing or tricking the user, or by blatantly lying.

An example:

This advert has a fake hair embedded into the image to make a user try to swipe it away, unwittingly opening the click-through advertisement. Definitely crafty but it baffles me that anybody would think that this method would increase sales.

There are three possible outcomes:

The user swipes to get rid of the hair and is taken to a web page of trainers and...

1. The user is confused but believes that they got rid of the hair but have no idea where this shoe page came from. They go back to their previous page and continue scrolling.

2. The user realises they’ve been tricked, feels annoyed and then goes back to their previous page.

3. The user is so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the trainers that all logic and reason evaporates from their brain and they immediately buy 6 pairs.

I assume that when this design was put forward, option 3 was considered to be the most plausible outcome. Or, more likely it was thought that this design would achieve an increase of clicks on the ad and they obviously didn’t care about the steep increased bounce rate as well...

It’s about trust

The problem with dark designs at their core is that businesses are not trusting their customers. They do not believe in their own product and don't trust the customer to buy it. If a business trusts their product and their team they need to be able to trust their customer base as well.

Dark designs should be a red flag for anybody who is thinking of buying from, or working with a business who uses them. It shows a complete distrust of their customer and a deceitful ethic at its heart.

Customers who realise that they have been misled will not be returning unless they are extremely impressed by really good products or customer service. Yet, considering the dubious means used to obtain the customer in the first place, I can't see this being high up on the agenda for a business that uses these tactics.

More dark patterns

There are other variations of dark design patterns, making it easy to join with a free trial, but then not being able to cancel a subscription without talking to a support advisor, hiding the cancellation process deep into a website or using confusing language on opt in/ opt out boxes. Not only is this frustrating and upsetting for the customer, but potentially damning for the business as well.

Sadly, the big players like Amazon are just as guilty. Asking you to sign up to Prime when you just want to complete your order, so you accidently select ‘Yes’ or when they select a default paid delivery option when a free delivery option is available, you just need to know where to look for it.

Leaving the customer with a good experience (even if they decide to leave) will make it easier to attract new customers in the future. That customer who is leaving might love your service but has to stop for a month or two for financial reasons. They might even recommend your product if they found it useful. However, this all comes crashing down when the user discovers a dark design pattern that makes it near impossible to leave. They probably won't recommend the service and might even write a negative online review of their experience.

In conclusion

We have a duty to be responsible and ethical when we put content out into the world. Implementing dark design ultimately hurts everybody in this process: The customer, the designer and the business.

While a best practice, user centric approach is more effort, is will be rewarded in the long term as consumer value honesty and transparency, and reputations can be damaged so easily online.

Caroline Richardson is UX designer at DotLabel

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