UX writing

How to avoid deceptive design in UX writing (with examples)

Deceptive design is like if Cruella Deville, Lord Voldemort, and Darth Vader brainstormed the most passive-aggressive way to manipulate the world. Learn how to avoid them.
dark patterns ux
dark patterns ux
In: UX writing, Best practices

We must, must, must talk about deceptive design.

Deceptive design is like if Cruella Deville, Lord Voldemort, and Darth Vader got together and brainstormed the most passive-aggressive way to manipulate the world.

Now, when I say deceptive design, I’m not referencing some gothic chic fabric those evil villains might sport. Deceptive design is a much bigger deal.

Deceptive design describes ways products subtly trick users into doing things they didn’t mean to do, or discouraging behavior that’s bad for the company.

As a term, deceptive design was first coined “dark patterns” by the London–based UX designer Harry Brignull (PhD, Cognitive Science) in August 2010. This is an example of a deceptive design:

dark pattern ux
Image credit: Wired

HBO Max made “NO, NEVER MIND” the primary call-to-action (aka it’s in bright purple,) which is deceptive and in the interest of the company. It would also be a deceptive design if they changed the “YES, CANCEL SUBSCRIPTION” to something like “I DON’T WANT TO WATCH THE FRIENDS REUNION.”

Here’s another example of a deceptive design:

dark pattern ux
Image credit: ResearchGate

This pop-up only advertises the free trial, likely because the business wants more people to sign up for the free trial and enter their credit card instead of auditing the course completely for free.

According to Brignull, there are 11 types of deceptive design patterns:

  1. Bait and switch
  2. Disguised ads
  3. Forced continuity
  4. Friend spam
  5. Hidden costs
  6. Misdirection
  7. Price comparison prevention
  8. Privacy Zuckering
  9. Roach motel
  10. Sneak into basket
  11. Trick questions

If you want to dive deep into each of the 11 deceptive design patterns, this article is a great resource.

Why deceptive design is bad

There are two reasons why deceptive design bad:

  1. They’re bad for the user
  2. They’re bad for the business

Deceptive design are bad for users because it deceives them and tricks them into doing something they don’t want to be doing, creating a negative relationship with the product.

But deceptive design also harms the business. That’s because you get unhappy, unqualified users going places they don’t want to go.

And while your opt-in rate might be higher using deceptive design, your retention will sink because the users didn’t actually want to go where you made them go. Not to mention, it hurts your brand reputation with that one user and everyone they talk to about it, including Reddit.

Take this email opt-in:

dark pattern ux
Image credit: Princeton

It tricks you, because you’re probably likely to tick the box because you don’t want emails from the company. It’s a familiar pattern that tick boxes opt you out of something. This company knows that, but they want to up their opt-in rate, instead of following familiar patterns and making the box an opt-out, they made it an opt-in.

While this may increase their email sign-ups, because these people are being tricked into subscribing, it’s highly likely this company will get a poor open rate on their emails and a surge of unsubscribes. Not to mention, users just having a general sour taste left in their mouth.

Deceptive design and microcopy

When it comes to deceptive design and UX writing, deceptive design-driven microcopy is when you know something just doesn’t feel right. Like this email opt-in:

dark pattern ux
Image credit: Medium

Most people are “into saving,” obviously. If you write a line of microcopy that just kinda makes your skin crawl or makes you feel like a sleazy salesman, there’s a good chance it’s a deceptive design.

If something isn’t true, don’t say it. If something is a trick, don’t say it. If something benefits the company and goes against the interest of the user, don’t say it.

This is why it’s important to know what makes “bad” UX writing — so we all acquire the skills (and taste) to know when something isn’t empathetic, helpful, or in the user’s best interest.

How deceptive design shows up on the job

So, here’s the thing — while you might know deceptive design is a big no-no and know a better way to design products, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter a stakeholder or collaborator who doesn’t.

In that case, it’s up to you to fight for the user (and the sanctity of your microcopy) and push back.

Again, when you use deceptive design, you get unqualified people doing things they don’t want to do, which hurts the business in the long run, not to mention creating a bad reputation for the brand.

Save the business, save the users — avoid deceptive design at all costs.

Happy UX writing 🖖

Written by
Slater Katz
As founder of The UX Gal, my mission is to make learning UX writing fantastically-simple and landing a job easy. I've held UX writing jobs at companies like Netflix, Fitbit, Verizon, Afterpay, & more.
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