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What are Dark Patterns and Unethical Web Design

Dark Patterns in Website Design Concept

Bad web design still dominates the internet and outdated websites that are not mobile-friendly continue to display in search results. Often, new designs are as unattractive as the old ones and don’t offer the best user experience.  But none of the above would be considered unethical.  In website design, there is more than just the content and layout of the website. Designers and developers refer to it as  “dark patterns” and you’ve certainly encountered multiple of these sites, or even possibly, use them daily.

The “dark patterns” term was created in 2010 by UX designer Harry Brignull.

He defines it as “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as making additional purchases or signing up for a subscription service.”

Dark patterns appear on several websites but for a typical user, they are often not easily recognized. The simplest example is a pop-up ad asking for your email offering you a special percent discount or a code. Although you willingly provide your contact data you’ll notice your mailbox filling with more spam.  An expanded version will ask for your email and after you deliver it, you’ll have to provide your phone number to get the promised discount.  Once you subscribe, you most likely have been added not only to this company’s mailing list but also to many other ones. You will start receiving text messages from political and other campaigns, although you never consent to your data being shared with third parties.  How often do you read the fine print on who will be able to purchase your information?

Another example is free trials requiring a credit card. Customers often sign up for the free trial and promptly forget about it, until they see monthly charges on their credit card. The companies rely on the fact that most users don’t cancel before the trial period expires. Subscription is always easy, cancelling is often very difficult.

For many marketing teams, the goal is to sell more products and deliver more conversions. With dark patterns, the short-term return is more valuable than how it may affect the company’s reputation in the next decades.  The tactics, although completely unethical, are often a result of a customer’s consent and they cannot be held responsible for the fact that users never read the small print.

Other common dark patterns include:

  • Hidden charges – the price increases once the product gets to the checkout screen and handling, and surcharges are added onto the initial price.
  • Disguised Ads – the initial ad content seems relevant to the user but upon clicking it leads to a different software purchase or download.
  • Social Proof – influencing users action by delivering success stories of similar users.
  • Fear of Missing Out – this common practice is used on travel and ecommerce website where you are being convinced that there are only “2 rooms left” or 35 people just added this item to their cart. These prompts force users to make impulse decisions in order to no miss out.

Internet users are becoming increasingly more aware of dark patterns and are advocating against these practices with lawsuits. This March, Epic Games faced fines of $245 million for deceptive techniques that manipulated players into purchases and allowed children to make unauthorized purchases without parental consent. In September of 2022, the FTC released a report warning about the rise of dark patterns and encouraging the public to report these tactics.

Now that we know more about unethical design, what constitutes good web design? Good website design focuses on creating a user-friendly space that allows customers to find exactly what they are looking for. There is no need to manipulate users or to be dishonest. The layout is engaging and it doesn’t force client’s behaviors. Creating a trustworthy and ethical space for customers will lead to customer loyalty, ensuring more long-term sales and returning visitors.

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