How Prevalent is Dark UX?

Default avatar.
August 28, 2019
UX professionals often seek to influence user behavior. How often does that influence cross the line into dark patterns? How prevalent is dark UX on the web?
How Prevalent is Dark UX?.
Iconic comedy duo Mitchell and Webb once asked a very important question: “Are we the baddies?” Given that, at the time, they were dressed in Nazi uniforms with skulls on their hats, and looked like rejected villains from a Wolfenstein game, the answer was something of a foregone conclusion. But what about us? No, no web or UX designers that I know of have ever invaded Poland, or done any of the more horrifying things that Nazis are known for, thankfully. But then, we’ve got a whole field of design called “Dark UX”, and that’s… concerning. [pullquote]It sure feels like dark UX is everywhere…[/pullquote] In other words: “Are we the baddies?” How bad is it these days? It sure feels like dark UX is everywhere, with companies trying to get their hands on your cash no matter the cost. The generally accepted definition of dark UX is something along the lines of: Intentionally malicious, deceitful, or even just highly manipulative design patterns that try to trick you into doing something you otherwise wouldn’t. I think, to answer that question, we need to establish that the first bit—the intentional malice, deceit, or manipulation—is the defining characteristic of dark UX. Just getting people to do something they might otherwise not… it’s not always a bad thing — doctors and especially dentists, try to do that all the time, to varying degrees of success. Marketing, even, introduces you to ideas and products you may not otherwise know about, and so would not otherwise buy. While marketing can very often feel scummy, I am forced to admit that there is technically nothing wrong with putting your brand out there. But when designers (and the companies that hire them) flat-out disregard the will, and/or well-being of the users, that’s when we have a problem. Let’s look at some classic examples, several of which come courtesy of the Dark Patterns twitter feed, because websites never behave badly when you want to take screenshots:

Opt-Out Newletters (or Even Purchases!)

Sign-up forms often come with the option to get their newsletter pre-selected. I’ve also run into airlines that have some of their add-on services pre-selected during the ticket purchase process. Forgetting to unselect those is an expensive mistake to make. But then there’s this process for unsubscribing from an email newsletter, which is pretty flagrant: pattern1

Scummy “No” Buttons

You know, the ones that say things like: “No, I don’t want to better my life immeasurably by receiving these product offers. By clicking this button, I acknowledge that my life is worthless, my children will be left homeless, and I am a terrible person.” Even Amazon is doing it: pattern2

The Complete Lack of “No” Buttons

Then there are the people that don’t even include a “no” button, or an “exit” button. I’ve had it happen with Google Play Music sometimes giving me no way to listen to my music unless I either sign up for their family plan, or refresh the page. I couldn’t get a screenshot of that, so here’s one of CrazyEgg doing something similar: crazyegg Also, Twitter won’t even let you turn off their more annoying features. There’s only a button to “see less” of them, and no one’s sure if it actually works. twitter-notifications

Intentionally Frustrating Products

Recently, I reviewed a service named Smashinglogo (no relation) for another website. See how I’m not linking it? That’s for a reason. It’s supposed to be an AI-based logo generator and… well it does that. But you have to depend almost entirely on the AI to randomly give you the logo you want. The customization features are minimal, and partially random too. But the site makes very sure to tell you that you can hire one of their professional designers to finish up your logo at any time. It just costs a bit more. This sort of design is actually a notorious problem in the world of video games, and not just the mobile titles. Middle Earth: Shadow of War launched as a very grindy sort of game that took a long time to complete, but you could make it easier on yourself by purchasing “just a few, simple time savers” on top of buying the full-priced game. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey took flak for pretty much the same reason. It wasn’t too bad if you like playing all the side quests in a game, but it was still a problem.

Predatory Features/Mechanics

We can look to video games for even more examples. Mobile games introduced the idea of the “loot box”, a purchase which will always grant you some sort of digital reward within the game. But what you get is randomized, so you can never be sure of getting what you want. [pullquote]It used to be just an industry controversy, but now governments the world over are looking into this situation[/pullquote] They’ve made their way into 60 USD desktop titles as well, and they’re specifically designed to tap into the gambler’s instinct. It used to be just an industry controversy, but now governments the world over are looking into this situation, with UK Mainstream outlets like the BBC documenting what happens when someone who has compulsive gambling tendencies gets suckered in by video games, which are supposed to be comparatively “safe”.

Dark UX is Everywhere…Oops

I wish I had better news. Look, it’s not that the majority of websites are necessarily using dark UX patterns. I frankly couldn’t find any hard data on that, but I doubt it. Is all their marketing honest? I don’t know about that, but I don’t think that most websites are trying to trick users into clicking stuff. But not every website is Amazon, Twitter, or Google. While most sites may not have dark UX, a lot of the biggest sites and products do, affecting a number of people that is potentially in the billions. I’d like to think designers are mostly good people, but the ones employed by bad companies have done a lot of damage. What can we do to correct this? Either we can burn it all down and try to develop a post-money society, or we can try to convince our corporate overlords that treating people right will net them more money in the long run. I’ve always believed that true (brand) love is better than Stockholm Syndrome. Now we just need to convince everyone else. Featured image via DepositPhotos.

Ezequiel Bruni

Ezequiel Bruni is a web/UX designer, blogger, and aspiring photographer living in Mexico. When he’s not up to his finely-chiselled ears in wire-frames and front-end code, or ranting about the same, he indulges in beer, pizza, fantasy novels, and stand-up comedy.

Read Next

30 Most Exciting New Tools for Designers, 2023

As we near the end of 2023, we wanted to take a look back over all the tools we collected over the past year, to pick…

3 Essential Design Trends, December 2023

While we love the holidays, too much of a seasonal theme can get overwhelming. Thankfully, these design trends strike a…

10 Easy Ways to Make Money as a Web Designer

When you’re a web designer, the logical way to make money is designing websites; you can apply for a job at an agency,…

The 10 Most Hated Fonts of All Time

Remember when Comic Sans wasn’t the butt of the jokes? Long for the days when we actually enjoyed using the Impact…

15 Best New Fonts, November 2023

2023 is almost over, and the new fonts are still coming thick and fast. This month, we’ve found some awesome variable…

Old School Web Techniques Best Forgotten

When the web first entered the public consciousness back in the 90s, it was primarily text-based with minimal design…

20 Best New Websites, November 2023

As the nights draw in for the Northern hemisphere, what better way to brighten your day than by soaking up some design…

30 Amazing Chrome Extensions for Designers and Developers

Searching for a tool to make cross-platform design a breeze? Desperate for an extension that helps you figure out the…

Exciting New Tools for Designers, November 2023

We’ve got a mix of handy image helpers, useful design assets, and clever productivity tools, amongst other treats. Some…

The Dangers of Doomscrolling for Designers and How to Break Free

As a creative professional, navigating the digital realm is second nature to you. It’s normal to follow an endless…

From Image Adjustments to AI: Photoshop Through the Years

Remember when Merriam-Webster added Photoshop to the dictionary back in 2008? Want to learn how AI is changing design…

3 Essential Design Trends, November 2023

In the season of giving thanks, we often think of comfort and tradition. These are common themes with each of our three…