Ecommerce sites spend a lot of time trying to increase conversion rates, but sometimes attempts are made to do this that aren’t in the visitor’s best interest.

Some techniques, such as the ‘sneak into basket’ which once appeared on the Sports Direct website are now illegal.

In an attempt to increase the numbers, psychological tricks which affect user behaviour in a negative way are being used to mislead an unsuspecting audience.

Although not technically illegal they are certainly unethical. Businesses need to be aware of the long-term risks posed by knowingly misleading customers for short-term gain, both in terms of UX and brand reputation.

Dark patterns

Harry Brignull coined the phrase in 2010 and ever since has received hundreds of examples with the hashtag #darkpattern. His website: https://darkpatterns.org/ holds a collection of just some of them.

Why dark patterns work

It's easy to understand how people can be affected by these.

When we are tired, or hungry we pay less attention to our surroundings - it’s almost like being on autopilot. Sites with a high cognitive load require lots of mental effort, so reducing this is a good thing. But when you aren’t giving your total attention you can misinterpret what you see and read.

When we are shown a left arrow and a right arrow, in Western cultures we have learnt that the right arrow is the next step. This is learnt at a very early age and has become second nature. This example comes from ZSL London Zoo:

If the right arrow is also green (another convention for ‘next step’) we automatically assume this is the thing we need to do next. We may not even read the text on it anymore, and this is where designers can exploit our ingrained behaviours.

The difference between influencing user behaviour and tricking people

The grey area comes when you aren't tricking people into doing something, but using clever psychological nudges to do so. Countdown timers if used appropriately can inform customers that placing an order before 10pm can get Next Day delivery. This is displaying relevant and meaningful information.

‘Why’ - The missing metric

When you hear of a site with a 2% conversion rate, the natural question is "what happened to the 98%". Numbers only tell you how many people didn't complete a task. Crucially, it won't tell you why they didn't convert.

Research needs to be undertaken to uncover and remove fears, uncertainties and doubts that can lead to someone leaving a site before completing a task. It’s easy when you see thousands of visitors to lose sight of their individual needs and think that the same technique will work on all of them.

You can improve user experiences and conversion rates without misleading visitors

I recently worked on a big redesign for a utilities company where the use of forms was getting out of hand. Forms on the homepage, in popups — all in the aim to generate leads!

While gathering some feedback through usability studies it was found that forms everywhere gave the complete wrong impression. People saw the forms, but they just felt the company was too ‘grabby’ in wanting their visitors' details.

So, by removing all but one of the forms and creating a simple user journey with compelling content, form submissions went up by 18%.

Just because you want to improve leads or sales doesn’t mean you have to do it at the expense of your user experience.

This wasn’t an easy sell either. Convincing clients to remove things is a rarity but the truth is that adding gimmicks isn’t sustainable in the long term, and the negative press that comes when you get called out on it isn’t worth thinking about.

Where do ethics sit: the company, or the designer?

The User Experience Professionals Association (UXPA) has a code of conduct which looks to address professional conduct between a UX designer and their client. There is also Ethical Design outlined by ind.ie which focuses on the efforts and rights of human beings.

But neither of these focus on the responsibility a website has to its audience. These standards are typically held within a company but the truth is that some businesses (i.e. budget airlines) have a reputation for using dark patterns during the payment process, and negative experiences will ultimately not help long-term growth and customer advocacy.

Should companies agree to an ethical code of conduct on the web, and support others which do so? Have your say in the comments below.

Paul Randall

Published 14 March, 2017 by Paul Randall

Paul Randall is a Senior UX Architect and works for Evosite in the South West of England. You can follow him on Twitter at @paulrandall.

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Comments (2)

Pete Austin

Pete Austin, CINO at Fresh Relevance

Don't forget the worst recent example, last year when Microsoft Windows was displaying a nagware dialog every day, to ask if you wanted to upgrade to Windows 10. Which a lot of people kept refusing. Then MS changed the meaning of the "x", which normally just dismisses the dialog, to mean "I agree to the upgrade".
http://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/05/26/microsoft_clarifies_upgrade_trick/

BTW several of the "dark patterns" on the linked site are actually just gated content or gated services. This business model is unacceptable now?
https://darkpatterns.org/hall-of-shame

3 months ago

Paul Randall

Paul Randall, Senior UX Architect at Evosite

Pete, I have seen other examples use tricks like Microsoft.

In Luke W's tweet, he called it Muscle Memory Moves Metrics: https://twitter.com/lukew/status/825014494988349440/photo/1

In reality, it will create a lot of confusion and false clicks. Ticks the boxes of a dark pattern!

3 months ago

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