Deceptive Design: How to Identify and Combat Consequence Design


In this training, Ron Bronson, who leads the product design teams for GSA/TTS 18F team, discusses what we all can do to assure that deceptive design patterns stay out of the sites we build. The article below provides an overview of the presentation.

We all rely on design to facilitate our user experiences. So, shouldn’t design reflect good intentions and honesty? Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Businesses often employ sneaky techniques to persuade users into buying their product or subscribing to their brand. These techniques are called “dark patterns” or “hostile design.” They are user interface tricks that are designed to influence people into doing things they otherwise might not do.

These tricks come in several forms, such as a popup window that demands a new subscription, or a spot designed to look like dirt on your phone screen, so you try to wipe it off and end up clicking a link instead. Even in the non-digital world, we can identify certain deceptive behaviors as “hostile design,” such as sleight of hand or trick questions. Designers, intentionally or unintentionally, can use psychology to mislead and trap users.

Products are not innocent; they mediate our behavior; how we collaborate, how we interact with our environment and how we deal with social issues.—Alain Dujardin

What are some common types of hostile design?

  • Designer Myopia occurs when we design from our own experiences, rather than solving actual problems. It also happens when designers do not consider user needs, and focus on their own preferences or motives.
  • Attention Theft inundates users with notifications or information trying to catch their attention. If information comes from only one website or Listserv, it’s no problem, but we often receive unsolicited messages from many sources.
  • Coercive Friction pushes users to make counterintuitive decisions.
  • Guilt Friction employs design patterns to reinforce guilt as a user retention strategy.

Coercive and guilt friction are best explained with an example:

Carl is not thinking about a haircut, but suddenly he receives an email from his barber saying, “It’s been a while since your last visit – we miss you!” The barbershop is clearly trying to persuade Carl by targeting the feeling of guilt and questioning whether he needs a haircut or not. At times, users see through these techniques because it’s obvious that the notifications are being sent by a system, not by the actual sender (in this case, Carl’s long-time barber). Regardless, it is easy for a user to fall into a trap when the design has deceptive intentions.

As designers, we can practice the 4 Rs to prevent hostile design:

  1. Reconsider our own assumptions.
  2. Reframe the problem statement with the lens of an “edge case,” or the audience outside our normal or expected view.
  3. Rewrite your protocols as needed to mine for information about liminal (or transitional) user experience (UX) states.
  4. Repeat this process.

Now, let’s get more specific.

What are some practical methods we can implement to make sure we are following the 4 Rs?

  • Designated Dissenter - A sprint exercise where a designated team member imagines and verbalizes ways in which the product can be abused.
  • Consequence Framing - Asking key questions, such as: Who informed the decisions? Who have we missed? This usually involves imagining the end or ideal state, and working backwards with the goal of finding a theme.
  • Friction Auditing - Developing entire UX research sprints around friction, deception, and mining for hostility where we don’t anticipate it.
  • Harm Analysis - Before launching a new feature, we can speculate potential harm, which gives us the tools to assess where our myopia lies.

It is important for both designers and users to understand the consequences of dark patterns. From the designer side, we need to recognize our own biases and practice ethical design. From the user side, we need to be aware of these manipulative tactics and make more informed decisions. Both sides can easily fall into the trap of hostile design, but if we change just a few things in the design process, we will ensure more honest and transparent interactions.