When bad UX is good for business.

Dark Patterns are UX Patterns intended to deceive the end user. When you unknowingly sign up for a recurring payment, email newsletter or agree to give up your first born child in exchange for using software, you’ve been had by a Dark Pattern.

Darkpatterns.org catalogs many examples of these, and arstechnica recently wrote a useful introduction to dark patterns. article here. I’ve been thinking about dark patterns after recently trying to eliminate spam from my inbox. When trying to unsubscribe from unwanted emails, dark patterns abound in the form of confusing ‘unsubscribe’ functions.

In the email context, it’s obvious why these dark patterns exist: they make money for the business, at least in the short term. If half of the users intending to unsubscribe from my email list fail, or maybe even add additional subscriptions, my email list grows. And since spam must work on someone, my revenue increases.

And this is where the problem lies for UX professionals. How do you argue for improving user experience when a dark pattern represents a case where bad user experience has (or at least is perceived as having) a positive ROI.

Using Increased Sales – Costs of Improvements as a quick and dirty measure of ROI, we can see where UX faces a problem. Under any circumstances, long term returns from increased sales attributable to a UX improvement are not easy to predict.  With dark patterns, its easy to get this number wrong because the decrease in revenue from dark patterns may not show up until the distant future.  And you may have analytics or A/B tests that definitively show that a change away from a Dark Pattern results in fewer newsletter subscriptions, recurring sales or other black and white metrics.

Even worse – what if a dark pattern is successful in the long term? That is, by using a dark pattern, you actually make more money over the lifetime of your business. It’s certainly not impossible, and here you’ll find UX practitioners making arguments about the morality of dark patterns. While I find these arguments compelling, it may be difficult to convince business stakeholders to invest in changes with negative ROI.

But even in these instances, there is a strong case to be made against Dark Patterns.  Dark Patterns are a huge, risky gamble, and they can only be successful if a company isn’t planning on being around for very long. While a company might get away with tricking users in the short term, the potential downsides can be catastrophic. Massive loss of customer confidence, tarnishing of a hard-won brand image, or even law suits. The ROI may look positive until you figure in the outsized costs of the worst case scenario. And if a site owner persists in using dark patterns, you’re making that gamble every day. Eventually, it will catch up with them.

Andrew Mottaz

Andrew is the Sr. Director of Interactive Strategy at Astound. He heads up our User Experience practice and has been helping improve eCommerce UX for over 15 years.