Note: This post was originally published on Medium.
LinkedIn recently agreed to pay $13 million in a class action lawsuit that ultimately resulted from bad design. The short explanation is that LinkedIn sent emails on behalf of users who did not agree to send them. Recipients could not opt out of the emails, and the emails were designed to appear as if they came directly from the user.
Unfortunately, misleading design like this is seen all too frequently. It even has a name — dark pattern UX, carefully and intentionally designed to trick users into doing things they don’t really want to do.
From a business standpoint, tactfully coercing the user to take certain actions makes sense. Designers are beholden to their clients and stakeholders’ business goals in addition to user needs. The purpose of this post is not to shame companies or patterns as good or bad, but rather give some insight into how deliberate design decisions can affect users’ impressions of an experience or brand.
Let’s walk through an example.
The budget airline Ryanair is notorious for slapping on the upsell and hidden fees. Recently, I booked a flight from Dublin to London through Ryanair. I fly Ryanair pretty frequently, but the booking process trips me up every time.
On top of trying to upsell me in every way imaginable (reserved seats, checked baggage, SMS flight details, low cost parking, baby equipment, rental cars, etc.), Ryanair prevents me from moving forward in the purchase process until I resolve the insurance section.
The error message alone is a nuisance. The message only appears once I scroll to the bottom of the page and hit continue, though the insurance section is located up top. I am then forced to scroll and search for a tiny box outlined in red.
In addition to the accessibility issues associated with using the color red, the error message focuses my attention on the drop-down box and not the explanatory text that details the odd process of opting out — open the dropdown and select the option “Don’t Insure Me.”
This is actually an improvement over what was done in the past. Last year, “Don’t Insure Me” was placed alphabetically between Denmark and Finland. Before that, “No Travel Insurance Required” was sandwiched between Latvia and Lithuania.
On the final page of the payment flow, there is a checkmarked box in the contact section that reads: “The information you have provided will only be used to contact you about your booking unless you are subscribed to our members list. Subscribers will receive information from Ryanair and our partners. If you don’t wish to receive our best offers then please tick the box.”
To me, the first sentence implies that the members list is a separate entity. Only after reading the second and third sentences did I realize that I would receive email offers (as in, I will be subscribed to the members list) unless I checked the box. The combination of factors — the section above labeled “important” while the bottom section is unmarked, the first sentence contradicting the next two, checking a box to opt out — pushes this design too far into the dark pattern shadows for me.
Alas, there is a way into the light.
We need to acknowledge the existence of coercion tactics and dark patterns, and understand the implications of using them in our designs (for more examples, check out this list of deceptive user interfaces curated by user experience consultant Harry Brignull). We need to understand both why these methods exist in the first place (they generate results, at least on the surface), how they are affecting our users long-term, and when they start to become a liability. Only then will we be able to understand and justify our own design decisions.
My guiding rule of thumb is keep the user informed. Some tactics — like automatically placing products into users’ shopping bags or preventing them from unsubscribing from listserv s— may generate returns in the short run, but will eventually lose users’ trust. Lost trust is very difficult to regain. More than likely, a user who feels he or she has been wronged will avoid your site in the future, send your emails straight to spam, and be reluctant to try new offerings from your brand.
To mitigate this, be clear with your users upfront. Don’t waste their time. Explain the benefits of whatever you want to upsell rather than try to trick them into acceptance. Don’t surprise them with hidden costs, withhold information, prevent them from moving forward or changing past decisions, or present something as mandatory when it is not.