Avoiding Dark Patterns in Web Design

Do you ever feel like the web has turned into Mos Eisley, “a wretched hive of scum and villainy”? A place where anything goes as companies attempt to persuade us to click, download or buy.

The web seems full of deceptive design patterns that use psychology to manipulate people into handing over personal information (also known as “dark patterns”), buy things they do not want or need and become addicted to an endless stream of ad-supported clickbait.

As digital professionals, we often find ourselves caught in the middle of this battle for the integrity of the web, yet our pleas of “will no one think of users” fall on deaf ears.

In this article, I want to help you make the case against deceptive design and provide you with more ethical alternatives that are ultimately better for everybody.

But before we get to that, let’s start by defining what we mean by deceptive design.

What Are Dark Patterns and Deceptive Design?

In my book Click, I define deceptive design (also often known as dark patterns) as: “User interface elements that have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do, often using psychological manipulation.”

The critical word there is “trick.” Not every annoying tactic used online is a deceptive design or a dark pattern. For example, popup overlays can be annoying, but they are not necessarily deceptive. Too often, dark patterns are used as a catchall for all annoying website characteristics, but when you go down that road, it becomes harder to argue against them.

Popup modals may be annoying, but they are not always dark patterns or deceptive.

So, for the sake of this article, I want to focus purely on manipulative tactics, not simply annoying ones.

No doubt you have experienced these kinds of techniques yourself. For example, maybe you have been warned that only one item is in stock to illicit a fear of missing out if you do not act. Or perhaps you have had a company add something automatically to your cart in the hopes you do not notice. Then there is the classic technique of making it ridiculously complicated to unsubscribe, so we give up. The list goes on.

Etsy pressures people into making a quick purchase by emphasizing the item’s scarcity.

What all of these techniques share is that they use some element of human psychology against us. They rely on us being too afraid, too lazy, or too unobservant. That is what makes these techniques so unethical.

The Business Case Against Deceptive Design

Unfortunately, arguing that deceptive design is unethical is not enough. There are no shortage of articles online deriding dark patterns and deceptive design as unethical. However, this approach is fundamentally flawed.

I am in no way suggesting that deceptive design is not unethical. It absolutely is. I am merely saying it is not an adequate argument to stop people from using these techniques.

The problem with the ethical argument is twofold. First, accusing a colleague of being unethical will likely anger them and make them defensive. Confrontation is rarely the way to achieve change.

Second, when somebody is under pressure to meet a business target, they can justify almost any behavior to save their job. The truth is that most of those who use deceptive design do so because they know it will deliver the results they need, not because they like to screw other people over. Deceptive design is driven by desperation in most cases.

With that in mind, there are two strategies for combatting deceptive design:

  • to demonstrate that deceptive design causes more damage than it helps,
  • to offer tangible alternatives.

Let’s begin with the argument that deceptive design is ultimately damaging. That begins with the reality that consumers are much savvier than many think.

Consumers Are Cynical, Savvy, and Spoilt for Choice

Let’s be clear; deceptive design works. As a result, many who adopt these practices presume people must be oblivious to them. If people are aware they are being manipulated, they reason, they would not act.

In reality, it is not that simple. Time and again in usability testing, I see users complain about deceptive design practices. They moan about sites attempting to manipulate them and claim they simply ignore their attempts.

In usability testing I have run on, users claimed to ignore the urgency the site creates. However, in reality, these do improve conversion.

The problem is that users may think they ignore these techniques, but subconsciously they still influence behavior, meaning that ultimately deceptive design techniques do improve conversion.

All of this means that dark patterns work, but they alienate people, and that is dangerous because consumers are spoilt for choice and tend to avoid companies that use them.

Whether they switch supplier or not, they are still likely to complain, and those complaints have a real impact.

Complaints about Deceptive Design Have a Real Impact

The internet has changed the dynamic between a company and a supplier. In the past, there was little a consumer could do when a company mistreated them. However, today a single customer can badly damage a brand.

There are many stories of customers who caused such a fuss after having a bad experience that it turned into a major PR headache for the company involved, and when customers unite, it gets even worse.

British Airways suffered a significant PR disaster because of a single disgruntled customer.

Then, of course, there are also review sites that are major influencers in people’s buying decisions.

All of this is to say that if customers are unhappy because you tried to deceive them (even if you succeeded in doing so), it is likely to influence how your brand is seen in the marketplace.

In fact, complaints about deceptive design techniques online are becoming so prevalent that increasingly governments are intervening.

From subscription services that make it hard to unsubscribe, to hotel booking sites that use deceptive techniques, government bodies are increasingly legislating against and pursuing those who use dark patterns.

So even if a deceptive design technique works today, there is no guarantee it will continue to be so as governments intervene. And it is never wise to build your business practices on anything that may be untenable in the future.

However, probably the biggest argument against deceptive design is nothing to do with the consumer and everything to do with the cost to the business.

Deceptive Design Techniques Have Hidden Costs

Unhappy customers can often prove expensive. For example, if they have bought a physical product, there can be significant costs involved if they want a refund. Unfortunately, these costs are often hidden by poor internal communication.

I once worked with a company that sold consumer electronics. Their biggest seller was a kettle that included a water filter to avoid limescale build-up that would damage the kettle and affect the taste.

The kettle was the most popular item, but people weren’t buying the filters (which needed replacing regularly) either because they didn’t want to, didn’t realize they had to or were buying “non-brand” versions for less.

The company decided to automatically add filters to people’s shopping carts when they selected the kettle without notifying them. This is a classic dark pattern and one that most people will miss unless they are paying attention.

Sure enough, the number of filters sold shot up considerably, and the ecommerce team responsible for sales went away happy.

However, elsewhere in the company, things were not so rosy.

The customer service team saw a significant increase in complaints that needed to be handled, costing the company in person-hours and communication costs.

Unsurprisingly many customers wanted refunds which cost the company postage, processing, and restocking.

In short, the fallout almost eliminated the additional profits from this deceptive design technique. A fact that didn’t come to light until I got involved and thought to ask the customer services and returns teams.

So although dark patterns can appear profitable on the surface, they rarely are because of the internal costs they generate and the damage they do to brand identity. Damage that has to be offset by increased marketing spending.

But telling your colleagues this isn’t always going to be enough if you don’t give them an alternative. If they are under pressure to hit a target, they may decide to ignore future PR problems or costs that will impact other teams.

To really change their minds, you need to offer them an alternative.

4 Alternatives That Are More Effective Than Dark Patterns

Fortunately, not only are there alternatives, these often turn out to be more effective in the long-term and actually improve how people perceive your brand. In addition, they are techniques that, in many cases, benefit the customer and help you stand out from the competition.

There are far too many of these techniques to get into here, so I want to focus on the four that, in my experience, have the biggest impact. For more on these techniques and to discover others, you may wish to watch my course on Frontend Masters entitled “Web UX Design for High Converting Websites.”

That said, let’s dive in with one of the most significant ways to increase your conversion rate, reducing people’s cognitive load.

Reduce People’s Cognitive Load

Cognitive load refers to the fact that we can be easily overwhelmed and that when we are, it causes all kinds of issues.

When people are overwhelmed, they fail to spot critical messaging, are significantly more likely to abandon a site, and often describe the experience as hard work or frustrating.

However, even more interesting is that when people are overwhelmed, they become more distrustful and are less likely to act on a website.

If we can keep people’s cognitive load low and avoid them becoming overwhelmed, it will likely lead to higher conversion and improved customer perceptions. In other words, it has all the benefits of a dark pattern (higher conversion) without the downsides (negative brand perception).

So how do we minimize people’s cognitive load? Well, the answer lies simply in applying sound design principles.

High cognitive load is caused by an inconsistent user interface, too much information vying for attention, and unexpected behavior. However, these problems can be addressed by simply sticking to design fundamentals.

At the most basic level, it comes down to removing clutter and being consistent in how your user interface behaves.

The fact that Amazon has avoided extensive redesigns, instead favoring incremental improvement, is that they know that significant changes increase cognitive load.

However, one other element that can lead to a high cognitive load is a person’s mood. The more negative the mood, the higher their cognitive load and the more mistakes they will make.

Anything we can do to improve a user’s mood will ultimately lead to lower cognitive load and improvements in conversion. This could be as small as adding humor to the user experience or as big as giving the user a free gift.

Whatever technique you use, putting somebody in a good mood not only reduces cognitive load, it also builds trust.

Establish Trust and Overcome Cynicism

Trust is critical in encouraging people to act, whether you want them to give you their email address or spend money on your ecommerce site. If people don’t trust you, they will not act.

That is why, according to research by Adobe, 71% of customers say they are more likely to purchase from a company they trust, and 61% say they are more likely to recommend that company to others.

Unfortunately, people are becoming less trustful primarily because of all the manipulative techniques companies use.

Fortunately, we can do a lot to build trust, and by far, the biggest tool in our arsenal is social proof.

Knowing whether to trust a website or not is hard to work out. So instead, people tend to rely on the opinions of others, even if they do not know that person.

Social proof provides those independent perspectives through testimonials, ratings, reviews, and expert opinions. In other words, instead of you saying how great you are, you let others do it on your behalf.

The problem is that people are becoming increasingly cynical about social proof. They don’t trust ratings, reviews, or testimonials as genuine. They are even suspicious of awards and certifications when they come from organizations they do not know.

We need to back up our social proof with evidence to combat this problem. Typically this will involve linking to an independent source.

Websites are increasingly using third-party review sites like Trust Pilot or linking back to testimonials shared on social media. This helps people reassure themselves that these sources are trustworthy.

Featuring independent reviews from a source like Trust Pilot adds credibility and builds trust.

Another alternative is to record video testimonials of people over Zoom, allowing users to see that the testimonial is from a real person and not made up. The quality doesn’t need to be great, as highly polished professional videos actually make it appear less trustworthy.

Not that users rely solely on the opinions of others before deciding to act. Users will need answers to the majority of their questions to reassure themselves that any concerns they have are unjustified.

Address People’s Objections and Questions

I am amazed at how many websites are created from the wrong premise.

Organizations start by asking themselves what they would like to tell their audience rather than asking what their audience wants to know. The result is a website full of self-congratulatory copy that does nothing to answer the customers’ questions.

If you want people to act on your website, you must answer any questions they have and address any concerns they harbor.

I am currently working with a company that sells network monitoring software. Their website does not mention the price because it is complicated to work out as it depends on the number of devices on the network.

Unfortunately, price is the number one thing the audience wants to know. To make matters worse, because this question is not addressed on the site, users assume it must be expensive and, therefore, out of their price range.

Failing to answer the question is frustrating for users and leads them to false presumptions.

However, worse than failing to answer the questions of your audience is a failure to address their objections.

Whether a user worries about how you will use their data or about your organization’s ability to deliver, they will not act without being reassured.

Despite this, many organizations choose not to address potential objections for fear of planting the idea in the mind of consumers.

Although there is some validity in this, you can address an objection without overly raising the objection. For example, the Mcdonald’s website mentions that they only use chicken breast. They don’t say that many customers have concerns about what goes into a chicken nugget.

McDonalds recognise that consumers have concerns about food quality and so they address this on their website.

So instead of falling back on some deceptive design gimmick, you will see far more success simply addressing the user’s questions and objections.

In my 27 years working in conversion optimization, simply answering user questions has consistently brought exceptional results. However, there is one last technique that might even trump that.

Save People Time

According to research by Microsoft, we have approximately 8 seconds to encourage users to stay on a webpage. That is because, in most cases, users’ most precious commodity is not money but time.

With so many options and so little time, consumers are brutal in how quickly they will dismiss a website.

If a page does not load fast enough or they cannot instantly find what they are looking for, they will abandon a website. So, if you want to improve your conversion rate, you must save people time at all costs.

A big part of this is simply making your website easy to use. However, probably the most overlooked component is site performance.

The Aberdeen Group discovered a 1-second delay resulted in 11% fewer page views, a 16% decrease in customer satisfaction, and a 7% loss in conversions.

Put another way, if you could shave 1 second off of load time, you could see a 7% increase in sales as well as happier customers. No dark pattern could compete with that.

Unfortunately, many of the techniques we use to try to improve conversion actually have a detrimental impact on performance.

For example, designers favor custom fonts, video backgrounds, Javascript driven animation, and other “design delighters” in the hopes of encouraging users to act.

Although these things have their place, they cannot come at the cost of performance. Performance is too powerful a tool for increasing conversion (not to mention search engine ranking) to ignore.

Happier Customers, More Sales

The advantage of the techniques I have outlined when compared to deceptive design is that they give you higher conversion while also leading to happier customers.

While dark patterns anger and frustrate users, these techniques improve the experience, leading to more word-of-mouth recommendations. Done right, this can lead to a self-sustaining cycle where, unlike dark patterns, you are not reliant on significant advertising spending to drive new customers.

So next time your marketing or ecommerce stakeholder wants to start using dark patterns, hopefully you will be better equipped to point out their flaws and offer them some alternatives.

Next, check out Paul’s course Web UX Design for High Converting Websites and learn to encourage users to act without dark patterns!

~ Frontend Masters Team

Wanna be a better designer?

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Sarah Drasner is a heck of a designer, and has a wonderful course called Design for Developers where you'll learn to be a self-sufficient designer.

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