The Dark Side of Design: An Ethical Designers Guide to Dark Patterns
Ever been infuriated that you can subscribe with a button, but have to answer a million questions over the phone to unsubscribe? Yeah me too. That’s why I decided to create a guide to dark patterns and ethical design, so that any new designer has a bunch of better alternatives to achieve their wildest design dreams, in an ethical way.
Our Innovation Time initiative dedicates 15% of our team’s time to work on personal projects they’re passionate about; this weeks challenge was to tackle unethical design practices. Designer James Seddon picks up a project he started at university to create a ‘dark pattern card deck’; a game centred around recognising dark patterns and understanding a more ethical approach to design.
What are dark patterns & why do I find them so annoying?
Dark patterns in design include clever tricks and tactics which aim to mislead and deceive users into taking actions they didn’t mean or want to. From hiding options in purposefully unintuitive places to designing images with fake smudges to trick users into tapping on ads.
The problem is that these kind of UX and UI decisions are very old-school, black hat and unethical. They were invented by people who only cared about making conversions, with no thought to the impact it would have on their users in the long run.
I wanted to spend my week of Innovation Time creating an engaging and informative way for designers to recognise dark patterns from a glimpse of an eye.
An ethical designers guide to dark patterns
You can always find documents on design philosophy postered around offices and workspaces; these cards offer an easy and more entertaining way to identify dark design patterns and gain other alternatives without spending hours of research and meetings trying to discover another solution.
My dark pattern cards project aims to do exactly that; arm designers with everything they need to recognise dark patterns and adopt a more ethical approach to design.
Whether the designer is learning the ropes or being pushed into using dark patterns by a client, they should all, at the very least, be aware of the issues they’ll cause and be equipped with a more human-centric, ethical approach to their work and designs.
1. Hidden costs
You present your user with additional unknown prices just before completing a purchase.
This dark pattern often involves extra niceties like gift wrapping and express delivery, look out for additional costs that users don’t know about.
2. Infinite scroll
You let your users be hooked into an endless loop of content.
Think about those weird click-bait articles you can find on Facebook, where you get lost and end up reading three or four different posts before reaching the bottom of the page.
3. Pull to refresh
You utilise a gambling technique to tease a surprise, making users want to see the next batch of content.
The obvious offender here is pretty much every social media channel out there that lets you update your feed with fresh content; it’s might seem like a light offence but does promote extremely addictive behaviour.
4. Trick questions
You use confusing and cryptic language to reduce the clarity of what the user is expecting to happen.
Look out for the tick boxes that give websites permission to use your data (especially email), as these will often be worded along the lines of ‘want us to send you occasional emails? Leave the box unticked’ which makes users do the exact opposite unless they read the full sentence.
5. Sly upselling
As your user completes their purchase, you add additional items to their basket, making them believe they need those extras.
A less common dark pattern, but one which you can usually find adding things like accessories and insurance relevant to an item you have in your basket.
6. Hidden adverts
You create an advert to look the same as the content on the page, misleading the user into interacting with the advert.
This is a real issue while reading certain articles from unreliable sources; filling a page with ads that use the same font, alignment and colours as the page being read by the user.
7. Guilt tripping
You use words to make the user feel guilty about their personal decision.
This one’s a little more forgiving when used tastefully (like charity ads), but in the wrong hands, this dark pattern can be used for things like scamming less tech-savvy groups such as the elderly.
8. Free trials
You offer a free trial with the clause of needing to sign up with card details.
Any user experience should avoid collecting unnecessary data, but this example is made even worse and much more common when you the free trial in question has an expiry date and users are changed with no prior warning.
9. Forcing the unintended
You go against the norm and present users with the opposite to mislead or trick them into taking an action.
From hiding options in unintuitive places to using links completely irrelevant to the images that represent them; this dark pattern is a quick way to get someone to leave your page.
10. False notifications
You use designs that look like notification icons to trick users into exploring more content.
Gaming apps are terrible at this and some even using the notifications icon on their App Store thumbnail, but you’re more likely to come across it on social media.
11. Scared transactions
You make the user complete a purchase quickly through fear of missing out or running out of time.
Some uses such as displaying how many items are left in stock are good things (if they actually are low in stock). Putting pressure on users by using false claims and lies, however, is the unethical side of this.
12. Sharing your data
You encourage your user to hand over their personal data for your financial gain, with them having little to no insight into what’s actually going on.
This is one that has definitely not gone unnoticed since the trouble Facebook have been in with their mishandling of data (a little less since GDPR came into play).
13. Targeted spam
You acquire your user’s personal contacts just to spam them with products and services.
This dark pattern is probably closer to hacking; but can be done in clever ways if you’re the type of person who signs up to stuff frequently and click ‘continue’ without fully reading pop-ups or text boxes.
Surely there's a more ethical alternative?
Ethical design is a code of conduct based on personal beliefs and values as well as those of wider societies.
We exist to help organisations change the world with Tech For Good, as a mobile app development company who focus on empowering organisations to make a positive impact on the world, it’s crucial for me and the rest of our design team that ethics are at the forefront of everything we do.
That’s why we never resort to using dark pattern design and always design experiences across our mobile apps which have the users best interests at heart. It’s our own ethos or manifesto if you like, aligning our design vision with the Cube’s mission to change millions of lives for the better.
Here are a few of our latest projects practicing what we preach.