The majority of designers work to improve the user experience for people when using the web, but in the background is a band of designers intent on manipulating, coercing and tricking users into making certain decisions, sometimes unknowingly, that serve the company, business or website owners, rather than the users themselves. These designers employ what are known as ‘dark patterns’; the user interfaces design patterns that play on human psychology, cognition, and vision as a means of deceiving the user.
Dark patterns are so-called as they represent the dark side of user interface design, where designers attempt to sneak things past the user, confuse them or make certain actions as difficult as possible (i.e. those actions at odds with the intentions of the business, company or website owners). Dark patterns range from the mildly annoying, such as giving sponsored advertisements the most prominent position in your email account, to the downright nefarious, such as sneaking items into the user’s shopping basket when they checkout.
There are now a number of well-established UI design guidelines, such as the need for consistency and standards, and dark patterns could be considered as the purposeful misuse of these principles in the hands of those with ill-intentions. For example, below is a selection of UI design guidelines taken from Ben Shneiderman’s eight golden rules, with a short description of how they can be turned against the user.
There are two possible approaches to take: the designer can either use consistency to lull the user into a false sense of security and trick them into making an unfavorable decision or they can simply make the user interface design inconsistent, so the user is more inclined to slip-up and misses important information. Read this to know How crucial is design consistency for UI design.
By limiting the amount of information available to the user you can sneak things past them that they might object to if the user interface design was transparent.
When users have carried out an action, do not allow them to reverse it or, alternatively, make it as painful, labored and drawn out as possible. For example, if someone has just agreed to a monthly mobile phone contract, hide the means of canceling this arrangement deep in the user interface or force them to call customer support.
As you can see from these examples, designers can twist the ui design guidelines and turn them against users to suit their own ends, whether they want to trick them into buying an accessory, subscribing to a newsletter, agreeing to have their personal details distributed among a host of dodgy third parties or any other action that is to the benefit of the people behind the website, with potentially unwanted effects for the user.
There are obvious reasons why designers use dark patterns (e.g. increased revenue and higher numbers of subscribers), but there is a clear downside; users will quickly lose their trust in a website if they are constantly being tricked. For this reason, designers tend to use dark patterns sparingly; opting to hide their box of tricks in among a range of user-friendly design patterns and features. A pre-selected checkbox here and a message in small print there might go unnoticed, but a website littered with dark patterns will soon lead to a mass of hasty abandonment. However, as the outcomes associated with a dark pattern become more serious, just one can turn users away from ever using your website again. For example, if you sneak expensive items into the shopping basket as users reach the checkout, they will probably try to cancel their order, take their business elsewhere and recommend others do the same. Therefore, when using dark patterns there is a careful balancing act; if the outcomes are too eye-catching or deleterious for the user the website will be dismissed as untrustworthy and if you are completely transparent you cannot trick, manipulate or coerce the user to make decisions that suit you.