When UX Gets Naughty

I was recently discussing the nature of dark patterns with some colleagues and it got me thinking about what role we as UX professionals have to play when balancing the needs of the user against the needs of the business.

For those that don’t know about dark patterns, a pretty good summary is this:

A Dark Pattern is a type of user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.
– http://darkpatterns.org

One of my colleagues summed up the conundrum pretty well:

“What’s best for the user isn’t always best for the business”

As evangelists for the user which have been employed by the business – who’s side should we take in decisions such as automatically signing up users for marketing communications, or sneakily adding up-sells into their basket?

For some companies where they are the main or only place to get a certain product (Ticketmaster i’m looking at you) they may have far less fear about incurring negative user experience points by adding completely outrageous charges to the basket, simply because the user has no choice but to use them. You could argue there is little benefit for them as a business to change this behaviour as a better experience doesn’t necessarily translate into better revenue.

Ticketmaster Dark Pattern
Ticketmaster – courtesy darkpatterns.org

The impacts of this tactic for smaller businesses however, or those operating in a saturated market place can lead to customers and users voting with their feet.

One particular scenario we discussed was gyms. Even offline, cancelling a gym membership can be a nightmare even if it is because of a situation outside the customers control, such as moving office location for example. Hidden fees and minimum contract terms can soon rear their ugly heads. For some chain gyms this bad leaving experience can certainly hinder their long term revenue as it is unlikely that customer will again join up to another of their branches closer to their new location.

So to answer the original question, should we be fighting for users or businesses? Well I say both.

Positive user experience is a powerful long term driver for customer loyalty and retention

I think businesses who employ dark patterns deliberately fall into one of three camps:

  • The customer has no choice so the company does everything they can to increase revenues (Ticketmaster)
  • The product they are selling is so cheap compared to the competition that customers are more prepared to jump through hoops to get a product at that price (Ryanair)
  • They are planning for short term gains over long term growth

If the business is in the first two camps, I think you will be very hard pushed to convince them to employ more morally agreeable methods unless they are serious about changing their perception among their customers. The third however, leaves some wiggle room.

As UX practitioners we need to be advising businesses about how the user experience they offer their customers can affect their long term goals and aspirations. Planning only for the short term in the early days of the web arguably was one of the catalysts for the user experience field to develop, in order to fully understand audience goals and motivations to create long lasting and lucrative relationships with a brand.

A great (i.e. not evil) user experience can foster:

  • Increased potential to use social proof as a psychological driver for purchasing
  • Brand advocates promoting your brand for you on social channels
  • Reducing the barriers to conversion can lead to more repeat purchases

Have you ever encountered dark patterns being used? How did it make you feel afterwards? Let us know in the comments..

* Apologies for the disturbing Jakob image