Dark patterns: Crossing the line in design ethics

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Dark patterns are UX design tricks meant to deceive users. Here’s how to avoid them and design with users’ best interest at heart.

7 min read

A collection of web design pop ups, price tags and other attention-grabbing messages, titled “Dark Patterns”

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There is a lot of power in design. Design can influence our thinking, our feelings, and the decisions we make, whether we’re conscious of it or not. As with any power, there is always the potential of misuse or abuse. This is where ethics comes into play because, with great power, comes great responsibility. UX designers, in particular, have a huge responsibility to use this power for good.

The whole notion of “user experience” (UX) design is based on a deep understanding of users, their needs, values, abilities, and limitations. We’re borderline psychologists without the license.

Where do we draw the line when it comes to influencing people with design? What issues are at play in design ethics? How can each of us as designers do our part?

How UX design can be ethical

We use the knowledge we gain about humans to design interfaces that “just work” for people. This includes tactics like the art of persuasion, encouraging people toward a certain decision. This is all very well until we’re persuading them toward a harmful decision or something that they otherwise would not have done on their own.

Here lies the (not-so-fine) line. Ethical UX design should never exploit human psychology in order to encourage people to perform actions that are against their best interests.

Ethical UX design should never exploit human psychology in order to encourage people to perform actions that are against their best interests.

What are dark patterns?

The truth is that ethics aren’t always so cut-and-dry for designers. No good designer maliciously intends to harm their users, yet we are surrounded by carefully crafted interfaces that trick people into making certain decisions and performing various actions. We’ve come to know (and hate) these deceptions as dark patterns.

There are various types of dark patterns. The challenge is many dark patterns have become commonplace and grown gradually acceptable in design circles, making it difficult to judge what is “helpful” persuasion and what’s simply a misleading design. Let’s examine these dark patterns more closely, the reasons they appear, and how we as designers can do our part to put the “user” back into “user experience.”

Types of dark patterns

Purdue University conducted extensive research and summarized these unethical patterns into five design strategies:

  1. Sneaking

  2. Obstruction

  3. Nagging

  4. Interface interference

  5. Forced action

1. Sneaking

Sneaking is any method of hiding, disguising, or delaying people from accessing information relevant to them. Sneaking includes practices like “bait and switch,” “hidden costs,” “cart sneaking,” and “user data transparency.” These can take on different forms, such as automatically adding items to shopping carts, not notifying users of added costs, and secretly collecting private data.

A ceramic goblet priced as $5.99, while the total price is $28.89
Not notifying users of added costs in price is a form of sneaking.

Why it happens:

One of the primary purposes of a business is to maximize profits for its owners or stakeholders. While this is understandable, the ends don’t always justify the means. In their attempts to increase revenues, businesses may opt for any tactic that would lead users to spend more money, forgoing values like brand trust and transparency.

Sometimes, the intent is well-meaning. For instance, with “hidden costs,” the intent of designers may not be to purposefully trick people, but simply not to push them away with shockingly expensive prices. They may assume people will expect the price to increase with taxes, service charges, etc.

In effect, sneaking dark patterns have become a design norm, meant to attract more people. Another well-meaning practice is the handling of user data. When using software, applications, and websites, we often have to agree to some sort of tracking or usage info. Companies can use this information to improve their products, making them better for people. The issue is not being transparent with people about the data collected, or even tracking without approval.

What to do instead:

Even if well-intended, sneaking is unethical and only frustrates people. Instead of converting people into customers, this practice ultimately drives them away. Hidden costs are especially frustrating since it’s lying to your potential customers. While we may want to avoid “shock value,” people will appreciate it much more if we’re upfront and straightforward.

2. Obstruction