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Shine a light on dark UX patterns to design websites clients trust

The digital world is no stranger to scandals. In 2018, Facebook was found guilty of sending unsolicited ads to phone numbers sourced...

Profile picture of Ido Lechner


4 min read

The digital world is no stranger to scandals. In 2018, Facebook was found guilty of sending unsolicited ads to phone numbers sourced through two-factor authentication, and hid its U.S. government-mandated free tax-file program for low-income users to funnel them towards their paid programs instead.

There’s a name for this type of malicious design: dark UX. Dark UX comes at the expense of the user, which is counterintuitive to the field as a whole. After all, user experience is supposed to imply a good user experience, not a sketchy one.

What exactly is dark UX?

Unlike poorly designed experiences, which are often the result of an oversight, dark UX is intentional. Dark UX is a series of design decisions that moves users in a direction they don’t necessarily want to go, in order to benefit the company or client.

That said, dark UX practices don’t always start with bad intentions—some clients simply don’t know the ripple effects of certain UX decisions. Your clients may ask for design elements they don’t realize can harm their user experience (and their business by extension), so it’s your job to steer them away from implementing them in their sites.

Examples of dark UX patterns in practice (and better alternatives)

Unfortunately, dark patterns are nothing new. Back in 2015, LinkedIn settled a $13 million dollar lawsuit for collecting email addresses through deceptive design. Top credit reporting agency TransUnion was also sued in 2017 for deceptive marketing practices and dark patterns on its website that tricked people into agreeing to recurring charges.

As a digital agency, you know how important UX is to your clients. Still, there are some dark UX practices that are easy to overlook. When it comes to building websites, transparency is the name of the game. The more positive interactions users have with you or your clients, the more trust you’ll be able to foster.

Here are some ways to avoid dark UX and foster trust.

Use a related products widget

Dark UX is sneaking products into a user’s basket. Shoppers who didn’t realize they had to deselect items end up paying for things they didn’t want.

Wix eCommerce features a Related Products widget that recommends items within the same product line. Whether or not shoppers like the recommended items, the decision to add to cart is never made for them, and they have full transparency as to what they’re purchasing.

Lean into freebies in exchange for info

One common dark UX practice is named after Mark Zuckerberg: privacy zuckering means tricking people into publicly sharing more information than they intended.

Help your clients create offers that incentivize people to knowingly trade information as part of an exchange, like downloadable freebies (ie: ebooks, discount vouchers, or free trials) or referral programs.

Guide users with clear directions

Delta is often cited for misdirection, a dark pattern in web design that tricks users into selecting a more expensive option than they had intended. On the airline’s website, a red button CTA adds upgrades, whereas an inconspicuous grey button must be selected to say ‘no thanks’ and continue checking in.

Ensure all sites are accessible and clear. Don’t make anyone opt out of a service (they should always choose to opt in), and make sure the feature is easy to spot and use, and is all-inclusive for individuals with disabilities and individuals at any age. As always, user testing will help you create more friendly and intuitive interfaces.

Don’t shame users

Make sure to use positive language so users never feel condemned. Confirm-shaming happens when clever wording compels users to decide against their intentions. Buttons that read, “no, I like paying full price” is one of those micro-moments that damper the relationship between the business and user.

Hire UX copywriters who can link you or your clients’ messaging back to the goals and objectives without guilting end users. “We’re sad to see you go” rings more sincerely than “are you sure you want to miss out on this?” As a general rule of thumb, don’t write copy you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. And on that note, read your writing out loud.

Give users wings to fly, roots to come back and a reason to stay

Create a cancellation policy for your client sites and display them upfront. Make cancelling easy and seamless, and retarget users who canceled with winback campaigns. Obstruction is a dark UX practice that makes it easy to sign up for a recurring charge or subscription, but difficult to cancel once registered. No one likes that.

When you’re graceful with users who want to leave, you maintain integrity while increasing the chances they’ll come back. Focus on the reasons they leave in the first place by providing feedback mechanisms that clue you in to what needs to be addressed within the business.

Good always triumphs over evil

Good design is honest design. Being upfront with customers leads to greater customer satisfaction and retention, increased brand trust and loyalty, and better long-term growth prospects, so aim to make websites that are accessible, secure and transparent.

Put the user at the helm of the experience by allowing them to make decisions for themselves. Establish price transparency, highlight negative information, default to the options safest for them and prioritize the overall experience over revenue. Agencies that steer clear of dark patterns in their own websites and their clients’ look better, feel better and do better.


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