Dark Patterns: Deception vs. Honesty in UI Design

by Harry Brignull

20 Reader Comments

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  1. i’m fairly savvy in my web purchases but recently purchasing air tickets on orbitz.com i ended up somehow signing up for travel insurance. given i don’t fly often, i have yet to duplicate the process that got me there, but i checked each step and yet this unwanted purchase still got applied to my creditcard. perhaps others have had similar experience.

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  2. If you’re using deception, you’re not profiting from other people, you’re stealing from them.

    Profit is the value you create for your customers. In every voluntary non-deceptive trade (including hours for dollars), both parties benefit according to their own values.

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  3. I don’t think that honeybees lie when they waggle their tails and dance to show where the nectar is and how much of it there is. I often think of honeybees working hard with innocent enthusiasm as I look around at what people do.

    Question: Thinking about the business model that offers a free trial (no credit card taken) and then stops access to the account after the trial period unless the user signs up for a paid account – is that deceitful or honest?

    I think it is plainly honest, but I wonder what your view is?

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  4. I’ve not had the privilege (YET!) to be deceived by these practices (I read alot of the fine print and am generally a bit too overcautios), but I would probably NEVER go to a site like that any more…

    And yes, it is stealing…but I guess, if you’re in a hurry and fail to see that I guess it’s your own personal fault for not being too careful IMHO

    :D

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  5. @bloodnok – you might find “this BBC watchdog article”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/watchdog/2011/10/travel_insurance.html interesting, it’s about travel insurance dark patterns.

    uberbaud - that&#8217;s not the definition of &#8220;profit&#8221; used by accountants and economists, though I agree with your general sentiment. <br /> <br /> DavidBennett – I think honeybees are fine, upstanding members of the insect community. I was talking about “these guys”:http://webecoist.com/2009/08/13/6-deceptive-insects-that-arent-what-they-appear/ .  Re: your idea of a business that offers a free trial with no credit card up-front: there’s nothing deceitful about that, but if the free trial is expensive for you to run then you’re in trouble.

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  6. This is simply sales 101.
    I love the honesty of the author and how he paints the views from both a customer vs business slant.
    The key here is highlighting what needs to be featured as a benefit to the user, and adds the most value to the business.
    Burying facts within paragraphs and calling it deceitful may be left up for interpretation, however there is much to be noted here with this technique.

    Which paragraphs are we addressing? Paragraphs within the content spaces on the user facing site? Or paragraphs within the fine print?

    Users, more specifically, customers know enough to look for the ghost in the machine. How well important facts are buried and how shamelessly they are hidden falls upon the choice of the content creator. Things like “by signing up for this newsletter, you agree to forfeit your salary wages to us and give us your first born, really need to be brought to the front. But as for the usual legal or contest sweepstakes jargon, that can be placed moderately within the content as long as we are bringing attention to it somehow, (like “By checking this box, you confirm that you have read…)

    Key issues that determine a sale or not can be brought to the users attention in a way that it’s not highlighted.

    I find these days that there not not too many, “By signing here you agree to give up your first born…” type flags that would hinder a successful sale online.

    More and more, business are become very upfront and honest about revealing red flags to their users in order to avoid the backlash of social stigma.

    A good company knows that it’s not these “hidden deceptions” that drive business, but rather, its the social verdict and praise they receive providing a fantastic, hassle free user experience.

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  7. I’m not sure what it says about human behavior when it comes to business settings or opportunities for making profits, but it seems that we need reminders like this about being honest. I cringe whenever a misleading design concept is thrown on the table for consideration. It should not be done and I don’t understand why people think that since it’s ‘business’ that being dishonest is ok.

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  8. Very nice and informative post. Keep up the good work. Please remember that i m waiting for your next awesome post…

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  9. This is all true. But consumers need to be wary in any transaction both on and offline. I’m glad there’s a group keeping designers aware of this trend. What’s the best way to educate colleagues on the risks if the company insists on using these methods? Also, there must be a way to alert users during or after a testing scenario and to get their reaction to these methods.

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  10. First of all thank you Harry Brignull on what was a well thought out and concise article dealing with a subject that has in a wider framework taken up too much of my working life. This is the first time that I have seen someone approaching this in a scientific and logical manner and I was pleased to have at last found someone who has written about what I would term “the ripp-off” in such a formal way.
    My own contribution is simply to suggest that this “style” of business has been going on since man first started “dealing”, and realise that if he presented his goods in one way then he stood a better chance of getting them sold. I ask the others then if they are happy to accept an increasing shamelessness of business people to take advantage of people who:
    1. Cannot read small print.
    2. Cannot read light grey print against a slightly darker background.
    3. Do not have time to read many many pages of technical gargon to find out if there is a “conn” somewhere (Apple, while selling iPods, present hours of reading material to customers who have already paid the money, to find out that they are restricted in ways that only a lawyer specialising in this subject will be able to understand, let alone decide one way or the other).
    4.Are not prepared to be vigilent every time they buy something but wish to relax and have an enjoyable time “shopping” rather than be constantly on the look-out, even with “reputable” companies.

    We are all going to get old and decrepid and vunerable. We will thus be subject to the various “tricks” that the new generation can think up to “make a buck” from those who have reached that stage and find it perfectly legitimate if the customer is “not in his right senses” to “take the profit”.

    The only way to stop this trend, as indicated, is to present the profit takers with some consumer “tricks” which some of us are now keen to use. These can be spread through sites such as this, through “consumer rights” services and any other “legitimate” path, in order to protect ourselves against unethical sales methods. It is this dark-pattern defence (DPD) which I find most constructive, and is an ever increasing self-defence mechanism which is necessary in order to partake of the “western free market”. It will continue to expand and pass from word of mouth and mail to mail, but will remain “underground” so that those using unethical techniques will slowly see their margins fall unless they use more and more devious methods to catch the customer. This will be their own self-destruction, the results of which are happening right here and now on the streets of all our capitals all over the world. Those who remain at home afraid but nodding in agreement are possibly an unrated majority?

    It is in some sense a war and of course it is much more interesting to be on the side of the common man rather than the “big industry”, since as we see in real wars, when the common man is equiped with some solid techniques (remember the French Resistance, or more up to date Afghanistan?), no matter how large the weapons, no matter how much finance has been invested into tricking people, the common man will retain his human kind self, as long as he remains conscious of the fact that it is only “money” that these others are after, and not his soul.

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  11. I agree that many websites are using deceptive techniques (save the worst for last) but the good guys should shame their more nefarious competitors. I’d love to see websites stating “we do not charge a credit card processing fee – why should we?” and I’m sure customers would react positively.

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  12. Marketing gets a bad reputation because scammers use marketing and some marketer push the boundaries.

    Marketers can learn from these examples and increase response rates, affect customer behaviours… but should think about the long-term.

    Long-term your image, reputation, trustworthiness and a loyal customer base who are willing to recommend you is a more sustainable business model.

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  13. This is a really interesting article. As a junior website designer with a highly honest firm that aids in website design and branding for small businesses, I feel as though we tend to naturally and unknowingly steer away from dark patterns. And it seems like this issue is more prevalent with ecommerce and larger businesses. But because honesty and straight-forward language is a very integral part of designing an honest, successful website, this is a great reminder to keep this idea in mind when designing to make sure customers of our clients fully understand the nature of our clients business. Thanks for a fascinating thought-evoking article!
    @BopDesignSD

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  14. Delta.com is very sneaky and charges a $420 international travel fee (yes, no kidding) to make the “price” of the ticket seem lower. Moreso durig the checkout process they make it seem like it’s an additional fee to the government imposed TSA security fee (which by comparison is a lot smaller). The initial reaction is to get pissed at the govt. and think that all airlines have it, but it reality it’s just what Delta charges directly in addition to the “price”. Beware!

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  18. I agree with some of the sentiment expressed in the article.  But the kind of ‘deception’ being used here seems no different to any other form of marketing or sales technique.

    I suppose the question is should web professionals really try to hold themselves and their clients to a higher standard than the rest of the marketing/sales world.

    Yes, sometimes it pays off if your site gets a reputation for being particularly honest, but in general you’re just throwing sales opportunities away – and most of us aren’t in that business.

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  20. I think it is plainly honest, but I wonder what your view is?

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