Promoting Ethical Design and Protecting User Interests
Deceptive patterns in user experience (UX) design can have detrimental effects on users, causing financial loss, loss of privacy, and legal control. These patterns are pervasive on the web and are often employed to boost conversions at the expense of user well-being.
As UX practitioners, it is crucial that we recognize and avoid deceptive patterns to ensure ethical design practices.
In this article, we will explore what deceptive patterns are, their origin and evolution, examples of deceptive patterns, what makes something a deceptive pattern, and most importantly, how to avoid them.
What Are Deceptive Patterns?
Deceptive patterns are design patterns that prompt users to take actions that benefit the company employing the pattern, while deceiving, misdirecting, shaming, or obstructing the user’s ability to make alternative choices.
Some examples you might have experienced yourself:
- Countdown Timers for Discounts: A website might display a countdown timer next to a product, suggesting that a significant discount is only available for a limited time. This creates a sense of urgency, prompting the user to make a quick purchase decision to take advantage of the deal.
- Artificial Scarcity: The website might also show messages like “Only 2 items left at this price!” or “Sale ends in 1 hour!” These messages are often not based on real stock levels or time constraints but are designed to make the user feel like they must act immediately or miss out.
These patterns can harm users and are particularly effective with vulnerable users who may have lower literacy or digital literacy levels. Designers should actively avoid and discourage the use of deceptive patterns to prioritize user interests.
Origin and Evolution
The term “deceptive pattern” was coined by Harry Brignull in 2010, inspired by the concept of “design patterns” in user interface design. Deceptive patterns have since proliferated in digital design, facilitated by A/B testing and the focus on driving conversions. Copycat designs have also contributed to the widespread use of deceptive patterns, leading to their perceived legitimization.
Examples of Deceptive Patterns
There are various types of deceptive patterns, and while it is impossible to cover all of them in this article, some prominent examples include:
- Obstruction: Making it difficult for users to choose options that don’t benefit the company, such as increasing the interaction cost or hiding relevant information.
- Visual or wording tricks: Exploiting cognitive biases or breaking established design patterns to mislead users.
- Nagging: Persistently pressuring users to agree to something, even after they have declined.
- Emotionally manipulative designs: Using fear, guilt, or shame to influence user choices.
- Sneaking or preselection: Automatically adding unnecessary items to a user’s cart or preselecting options without clear consent.
The Legitimacy of Deceptive Patterns
While some deceptive patterns may be legal, many are now illegal under consumer and data protection laws.
For instance, processing user data without explicit consent is prohibited under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Governments and regulators are actively working to identify and outlaw specific deceptive practices to protect users’ rights.
Identifying Deceptive Patterns: Distinguishing between persuasive design and deceptive design can be challenging. It requires careful consideration of user expectations and how designs exploit cognitive biases. To identify deceptive patterns, designers can run an amended cognitive walkthrough, asking specific questions about the user experience.
These questions may include:
- Could users unintentionally provide more data or spend more than intended?
- Is the exchange fair and appropriate when users consent to something?
- Is the information presented factually correct, and could users misinterpret choices?
- Are users provided with all necessary information to make informed choices?
- Are users rushed or emotionally manipulated when making decisions?
- Could users feel ashamed or guilty when declining a choice?
Avoiding Deceptive Patterns
Regular user testing can help identify obvious issues or strong deceptive patterns. However, we designers should not solely rely on user feedback, as mild deceptive patterns often go unnoticed.
To ensure ethical design, we should scrutinize their designs and adopt a user-centered mindset. This can be achieved by considering the most vulnerable user persona and using it as a reference point to assess the fairness and appropriateness of design choices.
As UX practitioners, it is our responsibility to prioritize user interests and advocate for ethical design practices. Deceptive patterns are harmful to users and can lead to financial loss, privacy breaches, and legal issues. By recognizing and actively avoiding deceptive patterns, designers can create more ethical and user-centered experiences.
Let us strive to design with integrity and protect users from deceptive practices in the digital landscape.
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Deceptive Patterns in UX: How to Recognize and Avoid Them was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.