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7 min read

On designing more honest products

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

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.

The big problem with dishonest design is that it leads users to do something that they wouldn’t do otherwise, with its only priority being business goals. An honest product, on the other hand, prioritizes the users’ needs alongside business metrics, and helps users create something of value that they want and need.

Overlooking user needs might work for the short term, but will damage any relationships with your users or customer-base in the long run. As with LinkedIn’s example, it can potentially result in a lawsuit or other forms of financial harm to your business.

Honest design is rooted in friendly usability, ensuring that the website or app responds in ways that the user expects it to, eliminating frustration or the need to overthink interactions.

Finding a more honest design process

Honest design is simple and straightforward.

You can almost think of design honesty as a grid in which design elements and techniques are layered on top of one another. Every layer adds potential room for trickery, even if unintentional. It’s your job as a designer to keep each layer of the design as transparent as possible as you continue to build the product.

Many designs start with a sketch on paper or a digital tool. This is the most honest form of design. It is an illustration of a problem and solution. There’s nothing in the way of getting users from Point A to Point B. The path is transparent, clearly laid out and open.

For most of us, this sketch can never truly be the product that’s eventually released to the world. But how do you maintain that same design integrity as the design progresses?

As you move to subsequent phases of the design, try to keep this philosophy in mind: Every element you create should take the user from the starting point to the end goal.

As you wireframe, map out this journey again without any decorations or detours.

When adding visual elements, take the time to craft the right visual language to convey your message, rather than just following design trends.

In the design process, visual decoration should be the last step. Product development should focus on users’ wants and needs combined with their journey to success. Only once the path is mapped out, can you work on making it aesthetically and informationally pleasing.

Try and maintain a similar mindset even during user testing. Are users meeting goals and interacting with the product in the ways you intended and they expect? If not, what can you do to help them get there? Sometimes the easy answer can be to employ a trick, but don’t fall into that trap.

Creating a design framework, and as a result, a product that’s honest, will probably be a little harder and maybe take a little longer. Everyone would already be doing it if it were easy.

What will set you apart is that you are pushing for a more genuine product, regardless of ease, and striving to create the best experiences possible.

Double negative language causes confusion, like this button: “Continue to uninstall”

Honest design cues

Users pay attention to everything in a product design. Even if they fall for some of your dishonest tricks, they often saw it happen ahead of time.

Honest design is rooted in friendly usability, ensuring that the website or app responds in ways that the user expects it to, eliminating frustration or the need to overthink interactions.

Visual and interaction cues of honest design include:

  • Transparent language and microcopy

  • Photos and videos that show real people and items without manipulation (color or quality editing is legitimate, as long as it doesn’t alter the photo’s meaning)

  • Buttons work as intended

  • Fees and payments are clearly stated (and the end charges always match)

  • Navigation is easy and intuitive, both for moving forward and backward

  • Users find it easy to leave or opt out of product updates, upsells, or unwanted information

  • Facts, claims, testimonials, and case studies are backed up by real and credible sources

Users will stick with products that are honest and transparent. When they aren’t abandoning or navigating out of frustration, the quality of the time they spend with the product is more valuable, and is more likely to result in a successful conversion.

After you’ve played a design trick on a user, any bond of trust you had the potential to form is broken. The short-term potential gains almost never outweigh the long-term losses of wronging a user.

Why honesty in design matters

So, if dishonest design can lead to immediate business gratification, why not start projects off that way? You can make them more honest later, right?

Not really. The damage will already be done.

After you’ve played a design trick on a user, any bond of trust you had the potential to form is broken. The short-term potential gains almost never outweigh the long-term losses of wronging a user.

In parallel, there’s a worldwide shift in peoples’ thinking. Now more than ever, individuals are looking to associate with, be part of, and do business with companies that make a positive difference. People want to create business relationships with companies that have the same values as them.

That alone should be a good reason to keep your design ethics in check.