Persuasive design vs. dark patterns: Where to draw the line
User Experience & Usability
In order to create a successful experience, UX designers rely on an understanding of human behaviour and psychology, allowing them to predict how users will interact with elements of a design. But the success of an experience can be seen from two different angles – on the one hand, there’s the success of the business which includes maximising profits, and on the other there’s the user’s success in achieving their goal easily and efficiently. The balance of these two factors is what drives the presence of dark patterns in design.
To be clear, not all design which attempts to convert a user into signing up for a subscription or booking a hotel, ultimately making money for the business, is bad. As long as persuasion is conducted openly without an intent to deceive, it can actually help to improve the user experience. This is because tasks and decisions which were expected to require a lot of effort, are simplified, motivating and engaging the user to take action.
Dark patterns tend to deviate from expectations and intentionally trick a user into doing something which benefits the business, but not necessarily themselves. As they are based on the same psychological principles as persuasive design, dark patterns are effectively hidden in plain sight but may come back to haunt the user later in the experience.
Let’s be upfront – as experts in usability and accessibility we recommend that you avoid dark patterns at all costs. Whilst it is clear that many businesses are learning this, we still catch them cropping up every now and then. Let us give you a few examples of where persuasive design and dark patterns use human psychology, and how you can tell them apart…
Recognition over recall
Digital interfaces such as apps often have consistent design elements such as a bottom navigation bar, or heart icon to favourite items. As a user encounters these characteristics more frequently, they become associated with the context of use and can be clearly recognised. However, when there are no cues or the cues are unfamiliar, the user must recall information from memory to inform an action. This increases cognitive load and is likely to add to the time taken to complete a task, or even cause a user to drop out.
In persuasive design, the principle of recognition over recall can be used to support decision-making and continuation through a user journey. This is especially helpful when asking questions which are difficult or time-consuming to answer. By replacing open-ended questions with defined options, the user can easily recognise and select the desired option(s). Visual imagery can support this further, particularly when there is a lot of choice, and even better if this data can be used to personalise the ongoing experience too! Netflix and LinkedIn are a couple of examples which identify user preferences during onboarding, later suggesting content to keep users hooked.
Whilst recognition over recall allows the user to complete tasks more efficiently, it can also cause people to overlook details which they presume will match contextual norms. It is here that we see dark patterns attempt to misdirect the user into giving an unintended response.
Some examples of this are encouraging users to:
Opt into unwanted marketing communications; ‘allow all cookies’
Agree to paying a higher price (e.g. a premium rather than basic plan)
Prevent them from signing out or unsubscribing from a service.
Often, this misdirection is achieved through the colour and positioning of calls to action, which are consistent with other enablers in the journey, yet have an opposite effect. Some websites such as the example below, also confuse users by using design elements such as checkboxes inconsistently.
As humans, we have selective attention meaning that once engaged with a design element, we don’t usually look around at what else is on the screen. This means that if a design isn’t optimised for the ideal user journey, our visual attention is susceptible to adverts or other stimuli. Tunnelling is a strategy which aims to strip these distractions away in order to direct the user’s focus towards achieving a single goal. In offering this guidance, businesses promote the likelihood of conversion and can also expose the user to targeted, persuasive information which may have otherwise been missed.
To work effectively, the intent to tunnel behaviour should be almost invisible, allowing the user to retain a sense of control. This means that the step-by-step experience must still match user expectations, whilst also offering a route to escape or skip steps which are not aligned to their goal (but may still benefit the business). Tunnelling is commonly used in online forms, where questions are broken down into achievable steps and other design elements from the website are stripped away. The Nike checkout is a good example of this, as the only things visible on the page are a summary of the bag and the three steps required for the user to checkout.
The best indicator of a dark pattern emerging through tunnelling, is when the user feels a loss of control. This could be caused by additional or looped steps in a process, which prevent them from reaching their goal efficiently. Some businesses use this tactic to make it hard for users to get out of a situation, such as to unsubscribe from emails or cancel a membership. Whilst the user must go down a pre-defined route, this may not match the expectations set when they were told that ending the subscription would be ‘quick and simple’, for example. The example below shows how although there is an option to ‘cancel’ on each screen, the user must go through a frustrating number of steps to repeatedly confirm this. The offer of a free month also attempts to persuade the user into forced continuity, so that the business can charge the payment card linked to the account following a free trial.
Operant conditioning is a well-established theory that suggests behaviour is influenced by the presence of a reward or punishment following a conscious action. Whereas a reward provides a reason for the user to repeat a behaviour (e.g. return to use a product or service), a punishment discourages the given action. For businesses, this offers the opportunity to gain increased interaction from, and loyalty from customers over time.
In persuasive design, incentives can vary significantly from tangibles like a discount on a future purchase, to intrinsic feelings such as satisfaction or fun. However, these rewards cannot compensate for other downfalls in the experience. Motivation is also driven by factors including anticipation, autonomy, the need to belong, and progress towards a goal.
The app ‘Forest’ successfully considers several of these areas, whilst also providing positive reinforcement to encourage repeated behaviour – in this case, for the user to focus on a task without interacting with their smartphone. It achieves this by:
Allowing the user to control their own targets.
Immediately rewarding the user after a study session, with virtual trees and money.
Supporting self-monitoring through detailed usage and progress statistics.
Providing an option to hold study sessions and compete with friends.
Whilst excessive rewards and control over the user can create a negative user experience, one type of dark pattern which could be seen to punish the user is confirm-shaming. This is where a particular action is designed to instil feelings of guilt, thereby pushing the user to change their behaviour to match that desired by the business. Although examples of confirm-shaming are becoming less common, Amazon still use this technique to encourage users to sign up to Prime Student by using the opt out message ‘No thanks, I do not want faster delivery’. This attempts to create a fear of missing out, and whilst it aligns to the intrinsic motivation to belong to a group, could be seen to exploit the user’s vulnerability to this. This is worsened by the visual imbalance between the two calls to action.
The existence of dark patterns goes beyond the examples mentioned in this article, and most of us encounter them on a regular basis without even realising. Whilst we acknowledge that persuasion is an important element of UX, we would like to see more businesses draw a clearer line between persuasive design and dark patterns. After all, putting the user first, will ultimately drive business success too.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
Maintain transparency: check that all information, marketing techniques and interface design is ethical and honest, to gain trust from and retain users.
Promote autonomy: allow the user to stay in control throughout the user experience; obvious steering will create feelings of manipulation and may lead to abandonment.
Support recognition: ensure that design elements follow the expectations of the user, by matching mental models, contextual norms, and standard design guidelines.
Streamline the experience: minimise the number of steps to allow the user to reach their goal efficiently, whilst considering how behaviours may differ between users.