The Dark Side Of The User Experience

Blog / 19 Feb 2019

Tags: Travel / User Experience / User Testing

This month a number of online travel companies were the subject of enforcement action from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The CMA found that the way accommodation results were being presented could mislead people, stopping users finding the best deal and potentially breaking consumer protection law.

All the companies named co-operated with the CMA during the eight month investigation and going forward will be changing how they communicate with customers. However, the changes don't stop there, the next step from the CMA is to ensure the rest of the sector follows suit.

Reading through the reports related to this story it's easy to be outraged. Customers of these sites would be justified in feeling taken advantage of! But these actions, and other ‘tricks’, rarely come from a company setting out to take advantage of their customers. Leaving out-of-stock items in listings can be argued as informing users of all the choices that could be available to them. Or the "10 people are looking at this hotel" notifications could be there to highlight a risk, it's just that the data isn't quite accurate enough to narrow down by both hotel and date.

It's all supposed to be helpful and even if concerns were raised when these features were created, they may have been quietened by people claiming there were good intentions behind them.

What are Dark Patterns in UX?

In UX there is a name for deceptive features: Dark Patterns. There is a website dedicated to naming and shaming sites that use Dark Patterns, which have great names like Roach Motel and Confirmshaming (which is a particular favourite of mine). We all know these patterns, the classic Roach Motel makes it easy to sign up to a service but also makes it incredibly difficult to get out of it.

So why, despite this do I not think that the majority of Dark Pattern creators set out to deceive their users and always say "don't assign to malice what you can assign to stupidity"? Well, I believe that the path to deception is taken one small step at a time. Having worked agency-side for 12 years I've seen user experience aims eroded by technical limitations, stakeholder requirements and sometimes just being too close to the project. Is removing the ‘back to basket’ link from the checkout making it hard for the user to change their mind or does it just remove distraction when they're focused on buying? What about pages where the primary CTA loads first, because it's important, but the slower content pushes that CTA down the page just as you go to click on it? Even the travel sites that use in-demand weekend prices to show just how much of a discount you are receiving on your weekday booking, probably just didn't spend the time to be specific about the prices they were comparing. A sin of omission rather than intention.

What could be done differently?

So how do we avoid making these mistakes that lead to bad press and customer mistrust? Checking that you're thinking about user needs as well as business needs is how! Go back to personas or research insights to remind yourself what is really important to users.

Test with real people. You're too close to see your site from the average user’s perspective - what makes total sense to you might be confusing/insulting/unnecessary for someone else.

Be thorough and don't rush. There is always going to be a deadline to meet or a last minute request to distract you but take the time to review your work from different angles. How does your new feature change the perception of other areas of your site? Do you need to be more specific about what you're saying to be fair to your users?

Finally, remember this quote from the great Terry Pratchett, “'s true that some of the most terrible things in the world are done by people who think, genuinely think, that they're doing it for the best...". You don't have to set out to deceive people to end up doing just that.

Now that’s food for thought!