The first requirement for an exemplary user experience is to meet the exact needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Next comes simplicity and elegance that produce products that are a joy to own, a joy to use. True user experience goes far beyond giving customers what they say they want, or providing checklist features — NeilsenNorman Group
What is UX?
Fundamentally, UX uses the powers of language, visual design and architecture to help users of all abilities, creeds and backgrounds to navigate seamlessly through applications and services without friction or frustration. In short, it allows users to go from A to B whilst maintaining positive outcomes. As UX Designers we celebrate diversity, we understand empathy and we work tirelessly to create spaces of inclusion.
This to some may seem like left-wing ‘snowflake’ dribble, but it’s incredibly important. Building trust benefits brands and users in reaching common goals and sets in place sustainable processes and associations.
But trust is hard to come by in this modern digital age, especially with the presence of deceptive techniques commonly known as ‘Dark UX’
What is Dark UX?
To start off, I use the term ‘Dark UX’ lightly. Associating an inherently user-friendly industry with anything that is ‘dark’ doesn’t sit well with me. Dividing UX into two forms- that being ‘Dark UX’ from ‘Ethical UX’ – perpetuates the notion that UX is not fundamentally ethical or about user inclusivity. UX is about ethics and morality. Dark UX patterns are not. But I will expand on why I feel this later.
‘Dark UX’ patterns are deliberately utilised design tactics that manipulate users to follow a path that satisfies short-term gains which in turn benefit a company’s goal. Whilst doing this they unashamedly shove users core needs to the bottom of the hierarchy and worsen their frustrations.
To be concise, it’s short-term deception for short-term capital.
A prime example of ‘Dark UX’ is the concealment of ‘unsubscribe’ buttons in emails. In this case, companies that exploit manipulative design patterns do so in a way that makes users think that there is no way out of using a company’s product or service. The lack of simplicity poses worrying issues for users, especially for those individuals that are on the spectrum or suffer from anxiety. Situations that pose no escape cause panic and distress which in turn generates a claustrophobic user experience. Design practice such as this trivialises the offboarding experience for users, therefore, staining the reputations of companies and the user’s trust.
In this case, users give up on their intended goal meaning companies still have the access to plague inboxes with tactile marketing emails so you’ll never forget them, even if you want to.
Now, these are some light examples of what ‘Dark UX’ is all about and I may be coming across as a little too passionate about the issue. But to make it simple, as Flavio Lamenza elegantly puts it, “Stop calling these Dark Design Patterns or Dark UX — these are simply a**hole designs”.
So what’s my issue?
I’ll repeat it again, UX is about ethics and morality. ‘Dark’ UX patterns are not. The foundations of ‘Dark’ UX do not align with the fundamentals of User Experience and calling things ‘Dark UX’ perpetuates negative connotations about UX. Hopefully, by now you too will have come to this conclusion.
But if not, then let me delve in a little deeper.
As UX Designers, we know that our main aim is to create seamless experiences that improve peoples lives with each iteration. We hypothesise, research, test, design, hypothesise, research, iterate and so on… But it is not the specific stages of UX Design that is important, it is what you do with what you have learnt that counts. The recurring question that we ask ourselves between each stage is something along the lines of, “What step can we take next in order to aid users to reach their goals?”. The key word here is “users”. Happy users, in turn, mean a happy brand.
Simple right? Well, deceptive design patterns are not products of this process. Whilst the production stages are the same, the knowledge gained between each stage is used quite differently. Data produced from research and testing become a source of weaponry that lie at the hands of dinosaurs that start asking questions such as, “How can we benefit from this?”. The key word here being “we”. This ego-centric approach to human centred design comes at a contradictory, it is no longer about people, but about powering a short-term money-making machine.
Ultimately, this creates an unwanted divide in what UX means. One half being the fundamentally ‘Ethical UX’ and the other being, the deceptive ‘Dark UX’. This divide means that deceptive UX practices are being validated as part of what UX is. A users experience is not a weapon to be used against them, but a tool to help them.
So, what am I getting at here?…
Dark UX is not valid UX practice. It is standard manipulation.
Plain and simple.
So, what are you worried about?
Oh, so you thought that I was just getting wound up over the way people were naming things? Ohhhhh no, it goes a little deeper than that. That’s just a minor fraction of my frustration, my grievance is in the reputation of UX Design.
The high street is suffering, with well over 20% of fashion sales moving online there is nowhere else on the web with more cunning motives than e-commerce. Retailers are one of the worst for it, employing scare tactics and urgency-laced notifications to make you buy more than you really need.
Do I really need another pair of shoes? Well, really I do as these ones are nearly sold out because this big, red, flashing notification tells me they’re nearly selling out… wait 30 other people are also viewing this item? Oh sh*t I better buy them before they’re gone forever!
They won’t be gone forever, and 30 other people are definitely not looking at those bright pink shoes you fancy. It is as if exasperating salesmen have manifested themselves into small annoyances on your screen that follow you around the site until you’ve swanned into the checkout and made them that wonderful 2% commision, and they really want that commision. Just that, there is no commision or salesmen, but a carefully laid out user path that only has it’s eyes on your wallet, not your feelings.
That is not to say that this is ‘bad’ UX either because it isn’t. ‘Bad UX’ would suggest that this design pattern is an innocent unintentional slip-up that is down to a lack of resources, UX personnel and education. And many bad UX patterns can be easily rectified with a bit of consulting and department expansion. Whereas with many large brands (such as retailers), a deceptive design pattern is very intentional and doesn’t need changing, so why would this be considered ‘bad’ to a brand if it is making them more money?
I cannot help but think that these previously ‘non-techy’ companies are only expanding their technology teams to use UX professionals as weapons to rob users of their trust and core decision making in order to produce a financial gain. And yes, I am playing dumb. Of course, I know that this is happening. Money is most likely the primary reason manipulation is used.
Money has been a driving force of almost all large private sector organisations and brands for decades. And I get it, brands want to reap the benefits of a booming tech industry without fully acknowledging its foundations and its users. But if brands refuse to acknowledge the current user frustrations, how will they respond to the next?
The Next Billion Users
So, by now you might be tired of my ranting, but I can assure you that there is a reason. As a tech-centric community, what can we do to translate the real meaning of User Experience? Do we really want to ‘next billion users’ to enter a space where they are exploited? Do we want the ‘next billion’ to have a misguided understanding of what the World Wide Web is?
To many of the next billion users, the World Wide Web is new unexplored territory that stands as a symbol of hope, education and freedom. The hope of connecting with others, the hope of educating themselves and the hope that their voices will be heard. Many of these new users might be coming from countries where their rights are restricted and exploited daily. If the internet is hope for these users, then why are we working to make an exploitative space that is no different to what they are already used to?
Dark UX patterns facilitate manipulation and exploitation, and it will only become more prevalent with the next billion users. Brands will see their fresh-faced vulnerability and target this as a way of getting what they want out of a user. But this is not right, as UXers we should be working to make their transition onto the internet as frictionless as possible. We want to be able to create a space where they feel comfortable and wanted, not another chess piece in a manufactured money making system.