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The Dark Side of Web Design

    What responsibility do you have to look after the best interests of the people that use your website?

    This question goes well beyond the obvious issues of protecting data from hackers and an ongoing commitment to privacy principles.

    What’s being asked is whether your website and social media activities use web design to unfairly manipulate people. 

    At this stage, much of it is an ethical question about where you ‘draw the line’. 

    Some of the practices are illegal. Many are not – and they are generally classified as “dark pattern” designs. 

    Jump To Dark Patterns

    This blog is in two parts. The first looks at examples of major and obvious breaches of the law, where a company’s digital strategy has deliberately been designed to dupe people.

    Part A: Big, bad and busted


    Example one: in 2019, an ABC journalism investigation found that the nation’s largest medical appointment booking company, HealthEngine had designed a business model where it was  “funnelling patient information to law firms”.

    It was also alleged by Australia’s corporate watchdog that data such as names, phone numbers, birthdates and emails were flogged off to insurance brokers. 135,000 people were impacted.

    The ACCC investigated and a multi-million dollar penalty was imposed. 

    Even worse for HealthEngine, doctors, dentists and other medical professionals announced they were abandoning the service.


    Example two: A court found the hotel group Meriton deliberately prevented certain guests from receiving TripAdvisor’s review email because they thought those people would receive negative reviews. The financial cost was a $3 million fine. The branding damage included headlines including the words “misled and deceived consumers”. 


    Example three: Social media ads on the likes of Facebook and Twitter claimed that certain Samsung phones were suitable to be worn in swimming pools and seawater.  Not true.  The result: $14 million in penalties and a lot of unhappy customers.

    Part B: Sneaky and sinister; designed to deceive

    Some companies deliberately use their website design to push the boundaries of what is fair – and what is legal. With over a billion websites in the world, perhaps they think they won’t get caught?

    Clothing company Tiger Mist was hit with a fine after its website breached consumer law for its returns policy. Specific note was made that the firm marketed itself to younger consumers. (We will discuss your organisation’s obligations to younger or less educated people a little later.)

    What is a dark pattern? 

    In a nutshell, it’s deceptive design.

    Dark patterns are tactics employed with the purpose of tricking a consumer into buying something or taking a particular action that they normally wouldn’t do. The European Data Protection Board defines it as something that will “lead users into making unintended, unwilling and potentially harmful decisions”.

    The phrase “dark pattern” was coined by UX designer Harry Brignull, who is a sleuth for these tactics and publicises them on his website


    The small print

    This has transferred from printed documents that had tiny, unreadable terms and conditions, across to website design. Most commonly what you see is a web design studio build a website or web page form where the default setting is the most “invasive”. For example, you unknowingly agree to allow your information to be shared (sold) to another company.

    There’s no longer any need to provide all the terms and conditions, you just provide one tick box – and then tick it for the person. It sounds a bit like signing a contract for both parties!

    X doesn’t mark the spot

    Making the “X” close button so small that when you try to click on it, you actually click on a link that takes you elsewhere. Worse is when the “X” is not really a close button, it’s a link to somewhere you wouldn’t normally go. When this technique targets an unsophisticated user – such as a child or someone with diminished intellectual capacity – it is an inexcusable practice that needs to attract serious penalties.

    Oh, hang on, apparently Microsoft did this in 2016 to get people to upgrade to Windows 10. The “X” on the pop up actually started the download process.

    Designed to distract

    Designing a page with distracting elements, so that the user’s eyes are guided away from the important information they should take note of. That might be as simple as agreeing to receive emails from third parties (that this website will get paid for) or agreeing to a credit card surcharge whereby the tick box is already ticked.

    Emotional steering

    What about the technique known as “Emotional Steering”? This is where the user is taken on a journey that appeals to their emotional needs. For example, looking more beautiful for beauty products or giving a child a better start in life by choosing a certain school. 

    While this is listed as a dark pattern by some organisations, others would argue that this is a natural sales practice. Individuals practice it in their daily lives, for example when they are trying to convince their spouse about a potential new purchase, or a work colleague to back them on a business decision.

    Where it crosses the line is in its targeting. The use of excessive fear is clearly not ethical. The use of the practice to get young children to divulge information about themselves or to buy something is also clearly well beyond the bounds of reasonable behaviour. Companies should not be allowed to manipulate the vulnerable members of our society for financial gain.

    Hotel California

    Also blatantly wrong is the practice of not allowing people to get to alternative points of a website. The most common is the inability to cancel a subscription using tactics such as broken links, excessively long forms across five or six pages, or forms that the website designer has created so they can’t actually be completed. This is named after the famous Eagles song because “you can check in any time you want but you can never leave”.

    Social proofing

    Now, what about “social proofing”, which is a version of the time-honoured sales technique of promoting testimonials to reassure people that they are making the right decision.
    Social proofing is where you might place a reassuring testimonial next to a “Buy” button. It’s definitely on some lists but not on others.

    The Isolation Room technique

    Let’s take that a step further. Some checkout pages are known to take away the navigation bar at the top of the web page so that it is difficult to move away from this sales transaction page. Is that any different to a car salesperson taking a prospective buyer off the car yard and into a small office so they are not distracted and instead are surrounded by images of happy people driving their cars?

    Outright trickery

    Examples of this are seen with online tools, such as calculators. The “Go” or “Enter” button is pushed down the page, so that an ad for a complementary product can be positioned in its place. It looks the same and lots of people click by mistake.

    Hidden costs

    Check out this example put up on UX Design by Canvs Editorial.

    It shows how a florist gives you a price then gets you to fill out all of your payment and delivery details. But if you don’t check the final page, you miss the fact that the price has suddenly gone up from about $35 to $53. 

    In another case, Viagogo brazenly used its website to project itself as the “official” seller of certain event tickets, when it was not. Among a range of other activities, it used headline prices but did not “sufficiently disclose” its 27.6 per cent booking fee.

    Let’s look at the damage this can do to your business. In the case of Viagogo, simply type their company name into Google’s search bar. 

    High on page one you will see Google’s rich snippets. If you click on the first question – “Is viagogo com a trusted site?” – you will see the awful reputational damage it continues to suffer to this day.

    Scroll down and you see this rather damning search result:


    This nasty little trick is to keep overloading people with information requests. They might get sick of this and leave but if the information is good, some people provide the information. They unwittingly provide more data than necessary for what they are trying to achieve. This information is invariably sold.

    What’s being done to stamp it out?

    California is moving to make dark pattern design illegal.

    European Data Protection Board has guidelines that govern dark patterns on social media. This includes “data protection by design” which Chair, Andrea Jelinek argues can be a “competitive advantage in the market”.

    Australia is starting to move against this problem. Helping to educate policymakers is a University of NSW report about how people are being “duped online”.

    The author was Katharine Kemp, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law & Justice, UNSW. She cited “examples of online stores automatically adding items to consumers’ shopping carts, such as insurance or service plans”.

    In another case, consumers were asked repeatedly to buy warranties for issues that would be covered by the standard warranty that is free under Australian law.

    She also noted the use of false countdown clocks to create urgency and railroad people into buying impulsively. In some cases, the clocks simply re-set when they reach zero.

    The study found people aged 18 to 24 were the most vulnerable, and they report:

    • accidentally bought something (12%)
    • spent more than they intended (33%)
    • disclosed more personal information than they wanted to (27%)
    • created an online account when they didn’t want to (37%), and
    • accidentally signed up to something (39%).

    What is the alternative?

    Rather than relying on deceptive techniques, you can win the game – long term – by looking after people. Create a well-designed user experience that helps people make the right decision, not always the most expensive decision.

    Craft a well-intentioned user journey that is transparent and aims for a win-win outcome. Provided your product or service is of high quality, you will not only receive repeat business, your client base will become promoters of your brand.

    It’s also good for business. A Brands In Motion study in 2018 (download it here) found that “Two out of three respondents say they are more likely to purchase or recommend products or services from brands that address societal issues that matter to them.”

    This was backed up by another study by Toll Free Forwarding, a phone IT company. Its survey discovered: “For a brand, ensuring your values align with those of your customers can lead to a huge increase in profit. We asked how much more people would be willing to spend in various sectors and found that consumers would spend 34% more in supermarkets, the tech sector, and clothing, if a brand aligned with their values.” 

    Credit must go to Thoughtworks, which has developed a good Responsible Tech Playbook to guide its staff in the design and development of digital projects.
    “The reach of technology is extending into more and more sensitive and complex arenas, from credit decisions and medical diagnoses to sentencing… It impacts everyday interactions,” says Thoughtworks CTO, Rebecca Parsons.

    “We must, as technologists, actively take responsibility for these impacts, and the unintended consequences of our work.”

    At Boylen’s website design Adelaide studio, we focus only on creating positive design experiences. 

    As the Brands In Motion Study says: “History is happening. Brands need to ask themselves, ‘Which side are we on? What will our legacy be?’”

    Interesting links:

    • Dark patterns and UX. Go to article.
    • GTG Advocates has written an article on “Dark patterns in social media platform interfaces: How to recognise and avoid them”. Read more. 

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