Have You Met the Dark Side of UX?: Dark UX Patterns and Why You Should Probably Avoid Them

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Have you ever downloaded a free app, but then it requested your credit card number to access it? Or did all of your contacts receive spam emails because you allowed an app access to your contact list? These are examples of Dark UX Patterns.

This article will tell you everything you need to know about Dark UX Patterns; what they are and what they aren’t. Then, we’ll walk through some common Dark UX strategies and explain why you should ultimately avoid them in your applications. 

What Dark UX is not:

Let’s begin with the definition of Dark UI Mode, which people tend to confuse with Dark UX.

Dark UI Mode is a style that became trendy a few years back. It uses dark colors in the graphic interface palette. Dark UI Mode only focuses on the appearance of the interface.

So, what is Dark UX?

A Dark UX Pattern is different; it involves how a user interacts with an app or website. Dark UX Patterns are used to try to trick a user into doing something that they may not want to do. They use strategies to deceive and influence the decisions of the user in the app. Dark UX, when used thoughtfully and in moderation, may provide value. But with too much, your users may become frustrated, angry, and ultimately discontinue use of your products or services.

Some cases involving Dark UX Patterns have even escalated to court. A few years back, LinkedIn lost a class action lawsuit due to their use of Dark UX Patterns. They presented a feature to their users to “ADD CONNECTIONS.” However, they failed to tell their users that doing so would permit the app access to the user’s contact list emails. LinkedIn then used this list to invite those contacts to join the social network. This is a Dark UX Pattern because LinkedIn never told users their intentions of building a database to get new clients.

Dark UX Pattern Strategies

Pricing

In terms of pricing features, a Dark UX Pattern could be a hidden cost, introduced only at the end of the checkout process. This cost might include fees for shipping and handling, taxes, packaging, and so on. It would also be considered a Dark UX Pattern if the prices are difficult to compare for different items. Or maybe an app asks you to provide your contact information before showing you the price (a method that is more common in social networks).  

Force Continuity

There are several dark strategies app designers use to keep a user on an app, or as a subscriber, for longer than they may want. For example, creating an account for a certain app may be quick and easy at first. But when the user no longer wants to continue, everything turns dark. The “unsubscribe” button may be hidden or the process of unsubscribing may be unnecessarily long and complicated. 

Another way app designers can trick users with Dark UX is through annual payment subscriptions that don’t notify the user about the renewal. In this case, there is a high probability that the user does not remember it, so their subscription will renew without any form of a reminder. 

A personal experience with Dark UX:

Last year, I joined a makeup subscription website.  After a while, I reconsidered my subscription. When I wanted to cancel it, the option to do so was hard to find. Once I finally got there, a message indicated that I must continue via email. So, I checked my email; the confirmation message had a link. The link took me back to the website, where I had to confirm that I wanted to unsubscribe and then select two reasons why. After that, I got another message in my email that required me to click a button to confirm the unsubscription; otherwise, it would remain active. 


Later, I continued getting emails from the company containing promotions and the promise to always be one click away from renewing my subscription. My curiosity led me back to the website, and it turned out they kept my data, even my credit card number, on file. I was not able to figure out a way to remove my information. In the end, I reported my credit card as stolen.

Shaming the User

This Dark UX strategy aims to bully the user. On a Yes/No question, the options for the user might include a shaming or manipulating option. The user likely will not appreciate this type of treatment. In the image below, you can see a clear example of this on a pop-up window that gives the user two options: “Show me the deals,” or “No thanks, I don’t like deals.” Maybe the user actually does like deals but doesn’t care to see any from this specific company. 

Sneak Into Your Shopping Cart

You are ready to finish your shopping and you click the “checkout” button. But right after that, you see a screen full of add-ons or on-sale items. The “continue” button is hidden or difficult to reach. This is another example of a Dark UX Pattern, where the app tries to persuade you to purchase more products than you initially wanted. 

This example is from www.forever21.com. When you add an item to the cart, it will respond by showing suggestions to continue shopping. The “close” button option is very tiny.

Dead-End or Road Blockers

Dead-end Dark UX design happens when people navigate through the app until they arrive at a point of no return. Users do not have a cancel/close option, and they must continue, even if they do not want to. The road blockers are distracting pop-ups that appear during the navigation path. The navigation is quite difficult.

Disguise and Misdirection

In this Dark UX strategy, the interface gives more design prominence to the things the app wants the user to use. They hide options they don’t want users to choose under poor contrast. The color codes mean something different from the standard to confuse the user.

An example of this is Waze’s app. When you try to type and the car is moving, the app shows a warning. If you are driving and interacting, you will probably choose the darker button, which does nothing. A less appealing button appears to unlock the app. 

Another example of this Dark UX strategy is ads in disguise; the design mimics the UI from the website. The user will likely see it as part of the website and interact with it.

Privacy

People trust their private data and personal information to apps or websites. Some companies take advantage of this trust and collect the data to earn profits from it. Social networks are notorious for this type of Dark UX strategy. They collect user data to sell to a third party or target a specific audience to display ads. Below is a screenshot of the Facebook app’s personal profile “About” page. The app uses this interface to collect personal information of its users.

These are the most common Dark UX strategies used by designers today. Using them may provide value in the short term, but eventually, your users will get tired, causing only pain points and friction surrounding how your users interact with your app/website.

To avoid crossing over to the Dark Side, I recommend:

  1. Being transparent and concise with your users. 
  2. Offering users respect, an exit, or an option. Remember, do not mock the user. 
  3. Respecting the privacy of the user and only asking for the necessary information. Explain why you are requesting information. 

Having a healthy and respectful relationship with your users will yield better results in the long term. 

 

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Lucia Carpio Solano

Lucia is a resourceful, imaginative, and proactive UI/UX designer. Also, a mom, baker enthusiast with a rock ’n roll twist. She has been working in the design field for the last 14 years. What she loves most about her job is finding practical solutions for the needs of the people.

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