How design can be deceptive

The dark side of UX

As designers, we often pride ourselves on putting the user at the centre. But that in itself is not a guarantee for ethical design. Knowing the user, their needs, and their wants can, if done unethically, be used to manipulate rather than to help.

For whom are we putting the user at the centre?

As with most knowledge, user insight can be used for good and bad. Designers rarely work directly for the end user but for a client – a company, an institution, or another organisation. Of course, this is not necessarily bad in itself – the end user benefits when offered a quality service or product.

However, we as designers must remind ourselves of this and always ask ourselves the question: For whom are we putting the user at the centre? Are we designing intuitive solutions to nudge the user to do what the client wants them to do? Or are we developing solutions to make it easy for the end user to do what they want to do? In a genuinely well-designed product, these two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they need to be handled consciously.

Trust, compassion, and human naiveness

When people are familiar with something – a service, product, or brand – we are surprisingly trusting and, perhaps, a bit naive. When we are familiar with something, we tend to assume that we are not being tricked, and we often have neither the time nor the patience to double-check that that is not the case. That’s why we repeatedly return to products and brands we have already used. So, what creates this sense of trust? Research shows that we respond with trust when we are met with compassion. Let’s have a look at what that can mean in a digital product context.

«The designer must assume the role of the user to be able to create good design that people trust. You need to have compassion for and understanding of the users’ needs and wants.», says Hanne Eidsvik.

The difference between design patterns and dark patterns

Design patterns represent the way a digital solution is designed for it to make sense to the user. For example, the way navigation is designed to make it as intuitive as possible for the user to get to where they want. Dark patterns, on the contrary, are designed to trick the user into doing something they don’t want to do. For example, signing up for a newsletter they are not interested in or buying additional insurance they don’t want or need.

This type of unethical design uses insight into the users’ behaviour to make them do something they don’t want, usually for financial gain. Either by charging the end user directly or by profiting from their data. Sometimes, we can also confuse the user unintentionally, creating manipulating design patterns by accident.

Good design makes it easy for people to do what it is that they’re aiming to do, while deceptive design deliberately confuses the user into making choices they don’t intend to. The example above represents a good mix of unbalanced choices and confirm-shaming. The most accessible thing to do is to hit the subscribe button, which is big and blue. Additionally they've formulated the text when you decline in such a way that it is shaming the user.

How can we ensure that we don’t contribute to deceptive design?

It’s essential that designers are aware of the different design patterns and dark patterns and that we take responsibility for the solutions that we help create. When working on a project, it's our responsibility to ask the right questions, both for the sake of the user and the client. We need to take on the user role and ensure that we design a product that makes it easy for the user to make well-informed choices. In short – it’s our job to figure out the sweet spot where the user's needs and the client’s offering align and design for that.

Sounds interesting?

Hanne Eidsvik

Let's talk to Designer
Hanne Eidsvik
+47 918 83 811

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