Dark Patterns: Where do you draw the line?

The definition of what’s a dark pattern and what’s not still leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Influencing a user isn’t inherently bad; humans influence each other everyday without even realizing it.

Likely, we’ve all had a car-sales type experience, where we feel like we’ve been tricked into something we specifically went out to buy. (that’s the reality of Neuro-Linguistic Programming for you)

But equally, I think we’ve all had an experience where someone changed our life for the better and influenced us to do things which were in our best interest that we wouldn’t have thought of even trying.

At the end of the day, businesses are out to make money. Higher conversion/more sales = more money. Industry likes metrics and UX can influence those numbers in meaningful ways (even if those numbers aren’t meaningful measures in and of themselves). More money means survival and also potential investment in making a better product (e.g. more research, iteration, time, etc.)

Both good UX and dark patterns utilize human behavior to achieve a desired outcome. Arguably, that desired outcome is a big factor in determining what’s “good” and bad". Some UX clearly falls into the dark pattern/black hat UX category. That’s not really what I’m curious about.

I’m interested in the grey area.

So, my questions are:

  • What do you consider dark pattern vs. just a better product/smart business?
  • Where do you, as an individual, draw the line?
  • Does it depend on what the product is?
  • In your personal experience, have you felt the need to put your foot down on a design or practice? How much room do you have for push back?
  • What do you consider dark pattern vs. just a better product/smart business?

There are three elements to a Dark Pattern:

1.) It must be intentionally designed.
2.) It must trick the user into doing something they wouldn’t normally do otherwise - something that is against their best interests.
3.) A disproportionate amount of the benefit of the design must fall to the designing organization.

Most dark designs hing on this third point, and are largely focused on the financial side of the equation.

  • Where do you, as an individual, draw the line?

When an organization is clearly trying trick me into doing something against my best interests, that’s when I’m out.

  • Does it depend on what the product is?

No.

  • In your personal experience, have you felt the need to put your foot down on a design or practice? How much room do you have for push back?

I have - with mixed results. UX folks often don’t have the voice or power in an organization to make a stand against these pieces alone. It usually involves partnering up with someone in product or leadership to push back successfully.

If you’re interested, I have a 16-part, 90-minute long class on Dark Patterns, the ethical considerations around them, the psychology that makes them tick, and how to handle them as UX professionals.

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