Overcome the dark side of UX (Part 1)

  • By
    Yonette de Ru
    May 4, 2020
    July 28, 2021

I personally love the Star Wars films for it’s creativity and storyline and decided to use it as a reference in this upcoming 3 part series which will explain and outline the existing dark patterns in the UX industry and give guidelines on how to overcome and/or avoid these dark forces.

Happy Star Wars Day, May the 4th be with you!

But first, what is a dark pattern? (The dark side of UX)

Dark patterns are unethical instances where a product or service tries to trick and force users into doing things they didn’t want to do. These patterns were actually designed with human psychology in mind, and crafted in a way to  help boost conversion rates.

You might have converted users by making use of these patterns, but in return you’ve also scared them, created untrustworthiness and destroyed the overall experience for them. Changing users' mental models can be a challenge and the most difficult thing is convincing users to come back when they've had an undesirable experience.

The dark sides of UX to avoid

In this 3 part series, I will refer to and discuss 12 dark patterns as identified on the Dark pattern's website. The first three are below.

1. Trick questions

If you aren’t familiar with the legendary Jedi Master from the Star Wars films, Yoda is a character well known for his backwards sentences. There’s a narrative effect to the way Yoda speaks, and the way in which he orders his sentences sounds vaguely riddle-like, adding to his character’s mystique.

His speech can be confusing to understand and even till today it will be difficult for me to respond if someone spoke in this way. Even though Yoda is a fictional character, many sites exist that confuse users by using language like Yoda would in a real-world scenario.

Have a look at the example below.

It’s confusing, right? How are your users supposed to make an informed decision when faced with choices like this?

There are plenty of examples that use the ‘Yoda speech approach’, by placing the verb/action element as the last part of the sentence, which is normally overlooked by users when they glance over text.

Have a look at the below example from Royal Mail. Only at the end of the first paragraph do they state what the user should do. In this particular example, they should tick the boxes on the platform if they wish to NOT be contacted - confusing right?

How to overcome or avoid trick questions

These days users are bombarded with marketing messages and it’s difficult to convince them to opt-in if they don’t feel a connection. We’ve seen many companies resort to these types of verbal trickery measures to increase engagement.

Instead of tricking your users, why not use the sensory appeal method (1), which is a method used to entice a user's 5 senses (taste, sight, smell, touch and sound). Each sense is used to relate to users on an emotional level. Using this method is powerful because users don’t perceive the message as marketing, leaving them feeling connected, and not tricked into marketing messages.

In the end, marketing companies can use the 5 senses to create positive memories that users can reflect upon, instead of tricking them into a false sense of engagement.

2. Bait and switch

In Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo is a smuggler and one of the great leaders of the Rebel Alliance, who consequently owes a powerful crime lord (Jabba the Hutt) money. Solo makes a deal to pay Hutt back but, unbeknownst to Solo, Hutt makes a deal with the Empire to catch him as a fugitive, freeze him and sell him off as a prize piece.

I’ve found myself in situations just like Solo, who wanted to settle his debt and continue life as normal, but was thrown a curveball and ended up frozen.

Okay, maybe I haven’t ended up in a block of ice, but it sure felt that way! When registering for an event on Eventbrite, I found myself automatically signed up and ‘opted in’ for their email marketing - which now bombards me with events that I am not even interested in!

How to avoid being ‘a Jabba’

Trust goes a long way in building relationships. Just like Solo trusted Jabba the Hutt and I trusted Eventbrite, we both had curve balls thrown our way.

There’s a lot to be said of power in the defaults (2). In my case, it was trust and the expectation of what a button should do (not automatically opt me in for marketing messages). Your users are likely to keep things the way they are and will not read the fine print, but taking advantage of that as a marketer breaks the trust in the relationship with your users.

As developers, we should always take a second look at the default states in our product and services and be very critical of the user journey. When you can remind your users what they're a part of, their beliefs and loyalty grow even further and in the long run, people will stay for what they believe in.

3. Misdirection

Obi-Wan-Kenobi is a Jedi Master (the Jedi’s are basically seen as knights of a kingdom and are known leaders and peacekeepers in the Star Wars universe) who is well known for using Jedi mind tricks on people. Obi-Wan uses ‘the Force’ to implant a suggestion in the minds of those he encounters, encouraging them to comply with his wishes.

Almost like a Jedi mind trick, the concept of misdirection purposefully centres a user’s attention on one aspect and distracts attention from another.

One example of where these misdirection elements are commonly seen are on e-commerce sites or listings. Did you know that 1 out of 70 e-commerce websites makes use of misdirection in some form? That’s shocking right!?

Airbnb is one of the guilty parties who uses these tricks on their users. Just take a look at the screenshot below:

Airbnb displays “per night” prices for property listings, but other expensive line items such as cleaning, service fees, and tax aren’t shown until the end of the journey, just before you make a payment.

The misdirection behaviour here is that a user would look at the images and the cost, either per night or trip total. Based on this cost they’d compare other listings, choose a place to stay and proceed to payment, to only then be notified of the additional expenses and increase in price due to the additional services & fees.

This customer journey is misleading because the user might have based their budget on their initial price, and only upon reaching the end did their perception change due to the additional cost. A user would then be faced with one of two choices, start the journey from scratch, keeping in mind the inevitable additional costs, or accept the costs and increase their budget to secure the property listing.

Too much cognitive overload for one person will surely have a negative impact on the overall user experience, and you want your users to come back!

Don’t fall for mind control

It’s important to cater for and show the right content based on your users intent. By knowing who your users are and anticipating their intent you can truly personalise and adjust features or recommend experiences relevant to their interests (3).

By using personalisation, you can guide your users and nudge them in the right direction without playing mind tricks on them. However it is important to note the difference between personalisation and customisation (4).

In this instance, you need to anticipate your users needs automatically in order to create a personalised experience, whereby customisation is just options which users can choose from.

In conclusion

I hope that these first set of dark patterns have changed how you look at interacting with various products and services. Know that, “with great power comes great responsibility”, so use the force and tools we have suggested above for a good purpose.

Understanding the psychology of user behaviour is an extraordinary tool for UX designers, however it is best used with caution. It must be used to understand your users and to provide them with the experience, not to trick them into doing something they don’t want to do.

Do you have any more examples of ‘dark UX’? Go ahead and leave a comment and let's see if we can overcome these dark forces in the UX industry together as one!

Keep an eye out for how to overcome more dark sides of UX in part 2 of our series.

References:

  1. Harvard Business Review, The Science of Sensory Marketing (2015)
  2. Brainy Business, Defaults: Why The Pre-Selected Choice Wins More Often Than Not (2018)
  3. Jasmine Bina, Belief Is The New Benefit (2019)
  4. ConversionXL, Content Personalization
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