Trust matters. Whether it’s in a personal or a business relationship, loyalty grows only through trust. When trust is lost, it can be hard to win it back. However, current trends in UX design show that many companies are putting profits before their relationship with the customers, using ‘dark patterns’ and other ploys to deceive users into taking actions that may not be to their benefit.

According to a report from xigen.uk, employing dark patterns has a severe cost on brand reputation. So much so that a whopping 60% of users will not bother returning to an unethical website. However, shopping sites are still utilising dark patterns regardless of their cost to brand reputation, with Web transparency finding that out of 11 thousand shopping websites, 1,254 had dark patterns present.

The difficulty is that these practices have become so common that some businesses don’t even realise the path that they’re taking. Therefore, with this article, I want to discuss how to recognize the dark patterns and step toward the ethical side of design.

How to identify dark patterns

In UX, dark patterns take a variety of forms. These are all intended to manipulate the user into taking action in a way they may not otherwise have considered, which is always to the benefit of the business. The models vary and are tailored to the business’s unique requirements, but here are some popular examples.

  • Twinned downloads and misdirection. Do you know when you run a software update or download something new without reading the small print and suddenly find your browser inexplicably changed? That’s a dark pattern at play. And even the big names get involved. Skype came under much criticism in 2016 when its software update led to users’ default browsers being switched to Bing.
  • Hidden costs and compelled continuation. This is where users are drawn in with a low price, only to face additional obligatory fees at check out. Or where free trials require debit card details to be activated, only for subscriptions to be charged without notification.
  • Forced action. Whereby an expected action results in unexpected consequences. Anyone who tried to dismiss the Windows 10 upgrade in 2016 will be familiar with this one. Because hitting the cross to get rid of the message began the installation process.
  • Hidden ads. Perhaps the most common form of a dark pattern is where promotional content is disguised as a feature. While most web users – and magazine readers – are familiar with this form of hidden advertising, it’s still not the best way to build customer trust.
  • Carefully curated questions. There are few people who will not have experienced the annoyance of receiving unsolicited mail after purchasing from a business. While GDPR was meant to put a stop to that, many businesses have risen to the challenge. While working entirely to the letter of the legislation, they are also side-stepping it, using carefully worded questions to obfuscate. This further leads many consumers to give various permissions unwittingly.

While each of these tactics has the potential to deliver at least short-term gain for the businesses that deploy them, they can have a long-term impact on user experience, trust, and loyalty.

How to combat dark patterns

It’s easy to see the appeal of dark patterns to businesses looking for quick results because that’s exactly what they deliver. However, if you want to build your business for the long-term, the ethical approach will always win out, which means being honest.

One recent example of company honesty that comes to mind was from a browser plugin called  GoFullPage. Even though they only charge $12 for a subscription – a sum the disappearance of which many users would have hardly noticed – they still notified their customers. Such small things definitely help build a trust relationship.

If you want to draw a customer in with a free trial, make sure that you send a couple of emails, giving them plenty of opportunities to cancel before their first payment is taken. Don’t hide your important T&Cs in your small print. Shout about them right upfront. Provide easy get-out clauses. And never promise something you can’t deliver or hide what will be the consequences of your customer’s actions.

Ethics and UX have always had an uncomfortable relationship. Where customers have been available to manipulate, enterprising businesses have done so. But with savvier consumers and endless ways to share their dissatisfaction, there is more pressure than ever before for businesses to behave ethically. For the good of their customers and their businesses. 

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