Welcome to the dark side…

A designer’s perspective on Dark Design Patterns and tips on how to avoid them.

As a digital designer I often find myself annoyed by the current state of the internet. There are ads and pop-ups everywhere, annoying chatbots without a close-button and let’s not even discuss the obligatory cookie messages that take up half of my screen, especially when browsing on my phone.

Next to these visual piques there is one even more evil: design tricks to manipulate users. We’re all well aware of clickbait, but web designers have more tricks up their sleeves to lure you to the dark side. In a world where everything is online, companies — and thus their designers — have to try everything to get your attention, to get you to buy their product. 
This is where dark design patterns come in.

First things first: design patterns

To understand where these bad vibes come from we need to take a look at the good things first: what are design patterns?

“User Interface Design patterns are recurring solutions that solve common design problems. Design patterns are standard reference points for the experienced user interface designer.” ¹

Design patterns are a great help if you just start your career as a digital designer. Using solutions people expect and are familiar with, helps you build a fluid design flow and thus a better user experience. Most users don’t notice these patterns, but hey, you know what they say: when no-one notices your UX design, you probably did a good job!

The Dark Side…

Now back to the dark side and the annoying user experience of the web today: what’s going on? Well, design patterns aren’t always used for good… There’s a dark side to design patterns, called dark design patterns or anti patterns. Dark Design Patterns function the same way as the regular ones, yet they use their powers for something evil. Getting superhero vibes already? To quote the — great resource — DarkPatterns.org:

“Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to.” ²

Ever felt upset when you clicked on a “You won’t believe what happens next!!!”-title and it turns out that nothing important actually happens next? This is what dark design patterns do as well: they make you do things you might not even want to do.

Let’s delve into some quick examples.

  1. You know Amazon right? How free is Amazon’s free shipping when you need to have a paid Prime account to get it? 
    This pattern is known as Hidden costs.
  2. Do you love Etsy as much as I do? The platform makes sure to let you know the item you are looking is in several other baskets too — you better buy it now or you’ll miss out. 
    This pattern is known as the Tom Sawyer Effect.
  3. Another great example of the Tom Sawyer Effect are event ticket websites. Ever bought tickets online and felt rushed by a countdown-ticker? Sites likes Ticketmaster love these! Making the customer feel rushed makes it easier to let them — quickly and sometimes accidentally — click on things they don’t need or want.
  4. If you have a LinkedIn profile you’ve surely seen the widget that tells you how complete your profile is. We humans have a nasty habit to complete things, and a ‘80% complete!’ will challenge users to finish filling in their profile, even if this mean sharing data we’d rather not share.
    This pattern is known as Desire for Order.
“Other people want this.” on Etsy.com.

There are many more, and some are so evil they died out (remember when LinkedIn mailed all your friends without you knowing it?), but this list will probably give you a good idea on how often you run into these dark patterns.

So, now that we know all about dark design patterns: what can we do to battle them? Here are three tips that help me identify and avoid these nasty patterns.

#1: Awareness

Congratulations, you’re well on your way! Knowing these patterns exist will help you recognize them; recognizing them helps you avoid falling in their traps. Inform your non-designer friends too, identifying these online pitfalls will make many people have a better online experience.

#2: Think long-term

As a digital designer we work closely with clients to reach their goals: sell more products or let more people sign up. Using a dark design pattern might look like a good solution: it’s often an easy and quick way to reach your client’s goals. However, how will they benefit your client on the long-term?

Hoa Loranger, vice president of UX consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, explains:

“Loyal customers are willing to pay more for your products, engage with your brand on social media, and recommend you to their friends. Dark patterns might result in a boost in new customers, but they’re less likely to be loyal customers because they’ll soon realize they’ve been tricked.” ³

Think about your client’s goals in the long-run: a positive experience makes users more likely to return and have a better experience with the brand.

#3: Trust your gut

The third tip might be the hardest: trust your gut. Does your client ask you to do something shady? No is an answer too! I’d like to think of us, digital designers, as creative folk who try to make the internet a better place. Being honest will do that. If you are confronted with a shady question make sure to face your client with a good answer: tell them why you don’t think it’s a good idea, tell them about the consequences, and after that tell them your solution. I’m sure you’ll make it work.

The battle is on!

Now that we know all about our new nemesis it’s time to put on our superhero capes and fight evil! I truly believe we, digital designers, can make a difference in creating a better internet and fighting the evil that is dark design patterns is a good start. Let’s do this!

Thanks for reading! If you would like to delve deeper into this subject I can recommend DarkPatterns (on Twitter too!) and EvilByDesign
There’s a lot to learn!