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I recently got into a debate with a coworker about dark patterns. He's a numbers guy -- and I made the mistake of bringing up an example of a dark pattern for which I didn't have evidence of any negative consequences.

Here are two examples we talked about:

  • Ads disguised as something else — like those banner ads back in the day (and sometimes even today) that looked like search boxes. These definitely increased conversion rates, but I didn't have evidence of what the harm was.
  • Emails or notifications that intentionally withhold information — so that they can drive "reengagement" on their actual site. An example of this is an email I received from LinkedIn when a poll I had voted on ended:

    They could have displayed the survey results in the email, or at least the "winner". But instead, they just included a "View Results" button, so I'd actually have to visit the site to see the results.

I know about Net Promoter Score and the idea that a detractor can undo the positive effects of six promoters, but that didn't convince him -- he suggested that the annoyed users may not be your target audience anyway.

What evidence is there that the costs (annoyed users, lost time doing something positive, etc.) outweigh the benefits (increased conversion rates or "engagement rates")?

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It's a good question, but likely the answer is that dark patterns are usually used because they do work...at least in the short term. Cons are always profitable as long as you keep them going as short term endeavors. ;) –  DA01 Aug 2 '12 at 6:11
    
I have to concur with @DA01. In my experience, the claim that "businesses shouldn't use dark patterns because they'll only hurt themselves" is usually not backed by any evidence at all. Remember there's a difference between a dark pattern and an anti-pattern. –  dhmholley Aug 2 '12 at 8:49
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3 Answers

Wow, nice and interesting question!

Personally I would consider that this rather depends on a person's philosophy and is more or less a morality issue. If dark patterns could do harm (financially, whatever), I am not sure this could be measured in an explicit way.

The examples you gave, e.g. misleading ads, could IMO be very different from emails that might (in some cases) not on purpose withhold information, whereas, of course you are right, in other cases it might be on purpose.

So, as said, IMO this cannot be answered with either or and cannot be proved to be right or wrong, but just ask yourself:

  • what kind of image do I create if I use dark patterns
  • will possibly benefits (higher conversions etc) now also benefit me in the long run
  • do I feel good about it? If it may not harm you financially (even benefit), it might give you a bad conscious or make you feel guilt, knowing that what you do is not exactly right or honourable (but as said, this is a morality issue)
  • how long can I use dark patterns till users get used to it, know me for it and will recognize what I try them to do?
  • what will competitors think if they see me using such approaches? will or could they take action against me?

If you really want to measure the difference in results, take those points into consideration, and also that tests for that might be accurate now, but look at the bigger picture as well, on long-term objectives.

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I'm not sure if it can be proved empirically that dark patterns are damaging to the business that employs them, especially taking into account that these patterns are likely only one of many examples of the company in question disrespecting the user (poor customer service, low quality products, etc.). My feeling is that, if the company lacks competition, they'll get away with it without much damage. Just yesterday, I checked in online with the low-cost airline, Ryanair; their site is full of bad UX design/dark patterns. But they are cheaper than the rest. I'm desperate to give my money to another company, but, for the moment, there's no other option.

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With subjects like this it's almost impossible to give a boolean answer.

Let's take, for example, those ads you get on software sites that have 'Download' buttons in their design. Even to the trained eye they're hard to tell apart - dirty tactics well executed!

Now if those ads take you to related software at a cost, and N user's purchase, the bad practice is actually good for business but bad for the user.

The question you need to ask yourself is why does UX exist? What kind of company are you morally?

If your jobs as a UX person at the company is to make users happy then dark patterns are bas for business. If it's your job to make lots of money for the company then I guess it's part of your role to use dark patterns to get that done.

Personally I'd rather not work in that sort of environment, but I can't say I think it's BAD for business if business = making money.

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