On designing more honest products

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Dishonest design can mislead users and spread misinformation. Here's how to avoid it and bring integrity back to design.

7 min read

Large buttons and arrows reading “Click here right now!” And “You’ll never believe what happens next!”

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Dark patterns. Fake accounts. Spoofs. Photoshopped images.

With so much misinformation out there, it's often hard to tell true from false.

That’s why more and more designers are searching for ways to better communicate truthfulness, honesty, and transparency. It’s an attempt for product design to find a more “authentic self.”

Types of product dishonesty

Dishonest design can manifest itself in a multitude of ways.

In 2015, LinkedIn was sued as part of a class action lawsuit for a design that was dishonest and was deemed spam. The issue at hand was a dark pattern that automatically opted users into notifications that were near impossible to get out of.

While this is an extreme example, similar dark patterns are everywhere. In fact, we know all too well that the internet is full of fake information.

Product dishonesty can be done intentionally, when the stakeholders know that they are creating a product or feature that will trick users into doing or believing something. This is a fairly loathsome practice, but chances are that almost every designer or design team has been asked to perform some sort of design dishonesty in their careers.

The second type of dishonesty is unintentional and can stem from a mistake or naivete. Neither is a valid excuse.

Dark patterns are a dishonest technique that designers talk about the most. These include any user interface element that tricks the user into taking an action they didn’t necessarily want to perform. Here are a few examples of dark patterns:

  • An “x” for closing an ad that’s so small, it forces you to tap the content

  • Opting into something when you intend to opt out

  • Ads that are made to look like content or navigation elements

  • Products that claim to be free, but then start charging a few days later

  • Pretend notifications that encourage engagement; these popups are almost impossible to close without clicking content unintentionally

  • Double negative language to cause confusion, such as “No, I don’t want to opt in” or “Continue to uninstall”

  • Confirmshaming, which guilts you into opting in with a phrase such as “No, I don’t want to save money”

  • Hidden unsubscribe buttons

  • Friend spam or tagging that “tricks” you into sharing with your network

  • Sneaking items or products into the shopping cart

A large button reading "Download FREE!" and a much smaller option to continue

Dark patterns aren’t the only type of design dishonesty that is prevalent. (We won’t even get into the issue of “fake news” here, but it’s rampant.)

Other types of design dishonesty include:

  • Photoshopping images to the point that the integrity of the photo is destroyed or the meaning is changed in a way that is misleading

  • Commenting, following, or engaging with fake accounts or bots

  • Video or audio clips that are taken out of context

  • Actions or interactions that are out of context

  • Language that is intentionally misleading

  • Not following design conventions, so that a user’s action (such as clicking or tapping) results in the opposite of what they intended

  • Imbalanced design choices, such as a large button for what you want users to do versus a tiny link for what they are more likely to want (positive and negative feedback buttons should be given equal weight)

  • Hidden information that skews product perception. For example, a label that completely obscures an item so you can’t see what’s inside

  • Layers of extravagant decoration to make users forget what they came in for

  • Intellectual property theft – in imagery, branding or design – that makes one product seem like another

A barely visible unsubscribe button

You are probably thinking, these practices happen every day, even coming from huge brands that people generally trust. But that doesn’t make it OK.