The goal of UX design is to use design techniques and messaging to guide visitors to a certain path and ultimately to conversion on the site.
However, there is a fine line between persuading visitors with effective tactics and unfairly manipulating someone into taking an action they didn’t want to take.
Dark UX occurs when a designer purposely uses certain techniques and messaging to create deceptive interfaces to mislead users. As web designers, it’s important to understand and avoid such tactics, which can sow distrust in a client’s brand.
5 Common Dark UX Tactics to Avoid
When UX design is done well, it appeals to the visitor visually and makes the brand messaging clear and understandable. It shouldn’t be cluttered, confusing, or contain misleading verbiage.
While confusing messaging can unintentionally happen on any site, those who use dark UX intentionally create messaging that muddles meaning. The confusion can be in the wording itself: For example, the usage of double negatives, such as “Don’t NOT sign me up for this newsletter,” can easily prompt a visitor to select the option opposite of what they desire.
Additionally, the actual design can present confusion, such as having options pre-checked in a form to sign up for promotions, so that the user would have to uncheck them to get the outcome they really want.
Misleading messaging can also refer to confusion around privacy policies or terms and conditions. This dark UX tactic commonly involves overwhelming visitors with unnecessarily long sections filled with legal jargon. GDPR and other data privacy regulations are putting a stop to this by setting up requirements where privacy policies need to be easy to access and understandable for users.
In order to avoid using misleading messaging accidentally, always consider how the common visitor to the site will interpret the options you’re presenting and whether the messaging matches up with their actual goals on the site.
Another dark UX tactic to avoid is a visitor trap. This is when a pop-up message is set up so the user can’t easily click out of it or can’t click out of it without exiting the site. It could also look like trapping users in a multi-step form or checkout process where it’s difficult to go back to the previous step. Typically, this tactic isn’t very successful because visitors will hit the back button or exit the site, and in turn, the opposite of the desired manipulation occurs.
Visitor traps can happen by mistake when designing a site and setting up a pop-up message where the site accidentally blocks visitors from a close-out option. It’s important to check pop-up settings and test them to ensure there is always an easy and clear way for the user to close out.
Hidden costs & information
This tactic is often seen with free trials, subscription services, or membership sites. Free trials can be a great marketing tool, but not being clear about the duration of the free trial or any additional costs included when it ends can actually be a form of manipulation. Visitors should have all of the relevant information before opting into a free trial.
For example, it’s a good idea to clearly present the expiration of a free trial and how much the normal pricing will equal once the trial is over. This allows customers to feel good about their decision to try it out and move forward in awareness and understanding.
When it comes to additional costs, you have to be careful. While it makes sense to have shipping and delivery costs added on during the checkout process (because those are typically calculated after entering the shipping address), a dark UX tactic can be adding even more hidden fees right before the user inputs their credit card. Sometimes sneaky design tactics can even make the updated price less noticeable.
These techniques can be seen on both B2C and B2B websites alike, but they can easily backfire. Customers today are ready to post reviews or go to social media and other platforms to call out brands for any shady practices. When in doubt, disclose all relevant pricing and commitment information.
“Confirm-shaming” is a fairly common tactic you’ve likely seen before on a pop-up on the web. It’s when the messaging around an opt-in or a purchase boldly presents the visitor with the desired option and then subtly presents the “no” option in the form of a guilt trip.
Example: “Enter your email address to subscribe to our newsletter” or “No, I don’t want to be happier”, “save money”, “get free stuff”, etc.
These messages are typically accompanied by manipulative design elements. The “no” option is often in small print and a gray scale color that is difficult to spot. In contrast, the option to take the action that the business wants you to take is big, bold, and obvious.
With a growing understanding of the importance of website accessibility, it’s thankfully becoming more difficult to implement these dark design tactics using color since even link colors need to have enough contrast for proper accessibility.
There are many examples online of companies using this tactic, and while these are seemingly done in good humor, it’s a form of manipulation that usually leaves visitors feeling bad about their options. This can create a growing sense of frustration or even dislike for a client’s brand. It’s always important to present web visitors with choices that they feel capable of making.
This tactic can be seen when a banner advertisement or sidebar ad is not readily distinguishable from other options on the page. It may blend in and trick the visitor into clicking on it. These ads are often set up with buttons to download content or sign up for something that the user is not actually interested in.
This tactic can be especially deceptive when it involves a bait and switch: where a visitor is misdirected to an advertisement or page that doesn’t match the initial messaging. Social media and a lot of platforms now penalize clickbait, so it’s not used very often.
However, it’s important to ensure your advertisements are clearly defined and contain relevant and appropriate information. Always pay attention to CCPA and GDPR restrictions for advertisements which include whether a customers’ information can be collected for remarketing purposes.
Focus on empathy
Ultimately, dishonest design tactics can breed distrust and do more harm than good in the long run. To create websites that offer positive experiences, the best rule of thumb is to design with the user in mind.
Lead with empathy, and try to set the visitor up for success in achieving their goals. Focus on building rapport with web visitors rather than using confusion to drive conversion.