by Ben Hall
Estimated Reading Time: 9 minutes
The Web is awash with grubby, offensive and downright bad UX used to trick, misdirect and manipulate users. Unfortunately, in many instances the designers and developers responsible knew they were creating a mess but they did it anyway. But it’s not totally their fault. Often these lousy design decisions were made to aid the business for whom they’re working instead of users and the Internet as a whole. However, users have become increasingly aware of these dark UX practices and are calling them out when they see them. But what type of practices are they beginning to resist and what can be done to eliminate them all together?
A little note before we proceed. The remainder of this article features frequent use of a ‘B*******’ word that is a little naughty. So in the interest of decency and good manners it will henceforth be referred to as ‘Ballshirt’. That word again is ‘Ball-Shirt’.
The Ineptitude of Ballshirt
Renowned UX expert and web designer Brad Frost recently launched a campaign called ‘Death to B*******’ that both pointed out and parodied some of the obtrusive UX practices that have spread right across the Web. In bringing these faux pas to light he hopes to encourage fellow designers and developers to resist their implementation and seek a slightly less seedy alternative. His message is simple; Respect people, their time and your craft, be sincere and create genuinely useful things. Interpreting his ideas that encompass a whole plethora of issues, how would I boil down and define ‘Ballshirt’? I would say Ballshirt is the excessive use of tangible web components that contribute to an untidy interface, constructing an annoying and unnecessary barrier between users and their desired content. Such components would include adverts, pop ups, modal overlays and autoplaying video or audio.
Many regional newspaper websites suffer from this problem of excessive advertisements, popups and flashy whizz-bangs that are leaping between users and the site owners content. Sometimes even literally moving the text round the page as you’re trying to read it so as to make room for another advert centered around the next shiny new car thats coming onto the market. But it is impossible to deny the need for such advertisements if you want to maintain the presence of such publications. Long story short…they’ve got bills to pay. But it is important to bare in mind that users are becoming increasingly wise to such practices. ‘Advert Blindness’ (also known as ‘Banner Blindness’) is a widely accepted theory in web usability. This is where, through years of web browsing, users have managed to program their brains to simply ignore such intrusive and attention seeking content. Ad blocking browser extensions have also been developed to help them even further. Users want a more usable and informative internet.
There are also Ballshirt practices related to content itself. Amongst these I would include splitting up a news or blog item into multiple pages to maximise clicks and subsequent advertising revenue, links that send users to unexpected places and, probably the greatest scourge of all, clickbait. This is where users are suckered into clicking a link by an enticing or titillating headline only to be underwhelmed by a story that may or may not have any relevance to the headline by which they were drawn in. Tricks such as these are there to force users ever deeper down the rabbit hole.
I’m of the thinking that designing and coding is a relatively advanced skill therefore those responsible for using such methods can’t be so freely categorised as inept. Maybe willfully clumsy is a better description. Oddly, the unashamed grottiness of Ballshirt and (possibly more worryingly) our familiarity with it’s icky practices means we’re kind of willing to tolerate it. For the most part it’s not trying to deceive anyone and it’s right there for all to see. It’s invasive, it knows it is but it feels it justifies its existence. We see it (albeit reluctantly) as a widely accepted necessary evil. However that doesn’t mean we can’t strive for it to be as unobtrusive as possible. Our levels of acceptance and tolerance of certain practices is where I see the dividing line between Ballshirt and the even darker arts i’m about to explore.
The Deception of Dark Patterns
It was UX Specialist Harry Brignull who coined the term ‘Dark Patterns’ to describe ‘features of interface design crafted to trick users into doing things they may not want to do.’. He has gone on to further categorise the various Dark Patterns that exist out there in the Wild Wild Web. In my opinion many of these categories can be broadly placed into two distinct camps; Dark UI and Dark Coercion.
Dark UI patterns feature intentionally bad user interface design that hinder users in carrying out tasks they wish to perform. For example, have you ever tried to delete your Amazon account? All you need to do to create one is give them your name, an email address, and a password. However, deleting your account isn’t quite so simple. There is nowhere within the ‘Your Account’ section to do it. Instead the link to have your account removed is buried four to five highly ambiguous levels deep within a ‘Help’ section that can only be accessed from the sites footer. And even if you find the link you’ll still need an Amazon employee on the other end of a chat interface to delete your account for you. A pattern such as this is referred to as a ‘Roach Motel’ in that it’s designed to make it easy to get into a situation but hard to get out.
Another famous example of Dark UI in action is Microsoft’s attempts to get users to upgrade to Windows 10 back in 2016. They used a pattern known as ‘Bait & Switch’ where a user sets out to do something but it leads to a different and undesirable result instead because their expectations of the interface have been manipulated. Windows users were presented with a pop-up suggesting to them to get the upgrade. Users who didn’t want the it simply clicked the ‘X’ in the top right of the pop-up thinking it would simply close it but it instead confirmed their desire for the Windows 10 upgrade and began the download and install process. This led to a lot of angry Windows users and Microsoft were forced to quickly backtrack and right the wrong they’d created.
Dark Coercion patterns attempt to leverage a deep psychological understanding of users for nefarious means. The best example of this (a pattern I like to refer to as ‘The Hurry Up’) are hotel booking sites such as Booking.com or Trivago that do everything to increase the urgency of your booking. For example, available rooms may be listed with a big red notice declaring that ‘So many people have looked at this room today’, ‘In High Demand’ or ‘Book Now!’. Sometimes they even throw in the occasional ‘The last one has just been sold…and you missed it. Damn’. All these messages are designed to sow that Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) seed in your mind and cajole you into hitting that Book button. Have you ever noticed how when you go to buy a car the salesman often informs you how he had someone in just that morning looking at the same car you’re interested in so you might want to swoop in quick if you really want it? It’s the exact same technique.
Update – Following an investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), firms such as Expedia, Booking.com, Agoda, Hotels.com, ebookers and trivago have agreed to stop utilising such practices across their sites. You can find out more about this here. A little victory!
Another Dark Coercion pattern is ‘Confirmshaming’ which is where text is worded in such a way as to shame the user into opting into (or sometimes out of) something. The web is now rife with many contact forms that openly mock users for not clicking that box to sign up to yet another ‘You’d be a fool not to want this!’ newsletter.
Who’s Coming to Help Us?
Legislation has managed to eliminate some of the more brute-force uses of Dark UX like being unknowingly sold insurance when taking out certain financial products, being stripped of excessive amounts of personal data when signing up for certain online services or hiding critical information deep in Ts & Cs. But the law can only go so far. It’s hard to legislate for the psychological tricks and coercion used on the internet. Many of these manipulations have existed since humans first started interacting with one another. The Web is just the latest platform to which these techniques have been adapted and utilised. That’s why any improvement to the current state of play has to come from us as designers & developers and from our clients.
Respect people, their time and your craft, be sincere and create genuinely useful things
We have, on occasion, been presented with ideas for improvements by clients that, to put it bluntly, would have turned their website or app into a digitised Piccadilly Circus. Adverts would fly in, calls to action would flash., and pop-ups would….well…pop. in these instances we have advised against excessive use of such “improvements”. Not only to protect our reputation as an ethically-minded design company but also to safeguard the trust and loyalty our clients customers have placed in our clients, in most instances, over many years. Brad Frost predicts that ‘people will increasingly gravitate toward genuinely useful, well-crafted products, services, and experiences that respect them and their time.’. We like to think that we share the same simple principles that Frost has outlined; Respect people, their time and your craft, be sincere and create genuinely useful things. Afterall we are hired, first and foremost, for our expertise. We are committed to always being aware of the impact the products we develop may have. We are equally committed to being able to justify our choices and practices to our clients and to the design & development community in which we operate.