The Slippery Slope of Black Hat CRO, Dark Patterns and Manipulative Interface Design #ConvCon

The Slippery Slope of Black Hat CRO, Dark Patterns and Manipulative Interface Design #ConvCon

28th November 2012

Many websites across the Internet have either purposefully, or accidentally, fallen into the trap of employing black hat CRO tactics to trick users into converting. This is something that Dr. Harry Brignull User Experience Consultant for refers to as ‘Dark Patterns’. This talk takes time to explore examples of how websites use these manipulative techniques and also explores the notion that; while these tactics may work in the short term, as usability experts, brand managers or even website owners, we must look beyond this – toward protecting our brand and developing a long term strategy.

Harry kicked off the talk by getting everyone that has an iPhone to try to find and check whether ad-tracking was activated on their iPhones, this was difficult as it wasn’t under ‘privacy’ settings, as one might think, in fact it was at the bottom of the ‘about’ page:

Advertising Setting Apple iPhone Limit Ad Tracking Apple iPhone

If we consider the wording used here though, we can see that Apple are using very confusing language, ‘limit ad tracking – off’ doesn’t actually mean that ad tracking is turned off, it means that limiting ad tracking is turned off; in essence ‘off means on’. This is what Harry describes as a dark pattern.

Dark Pattern: Inverting usability principles to personal gain. Taking advantage of these principles to have people accidentally (or unknowingly) complete actions.

Harry has created a Dark Patterns Wiki, that serves as a democratic platform where people could name and shame dark patterns of usability they discover across the web.

By inverting Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics (arguably the most famous and referenced usability guidelines) we can uncover some of these dark patterns:

10 Anti Usability Heuristics

  • This forced individuals to use deception to achieve their KPIs, this practice is commonly seen when trying to get users to join mailing lists.
  • Mandatory ‘yes/no’ buttons with no choice automatically selected force interaction, this can involve using attention blindness to their own benefit.

“Brand relationships are like human relationships”

  • Many sites use instances where they will try to force you through their own paywall, when you can access this information elsewhere on the web. Furthermore, many sites rely on limiting the ability to find information on auto-renew subscriptions, these are examples of dark patterns.
  • However brand relationships aren’t like human relationships in these examples:
    • JustFab – users aren’t buying an item, they’re signing up for a membership at $45 a month, when you purchase a product you’re automatically signed up!
    • – If you’re trying to buy products it prompts you asking whether you want a free next directory (in an auto selected form). In the small print by purchasing this you are also signing up for a credit check and then you’ll be charged for every Next Directory onwards at £3.75 a piece.

‘Roach Motels’

Roach Motels: Easy to open/enter, very difficult to leave.

  • Bank accounts are a great example of roach motels – they make the experience very easy to get in, but incredibly difficult to get out.
  • – One of Harry’s clients, you sign up and they will notify you should your banks change their interest rates. The worrying thing about this is that this sort of service shouldn’t have to exist!
  • Stackoverflow – “We’re like Expertsexchange but without all the evil” (Jeff Atwood)
Stackoverflow Quote Conversion Conference
  • You have to work with humans, individually, to understand the nature of their requirements.
  • Dark patterns are very blinkered and coercive practices that end up providing a sub-optimal user experience for your customers/website visitors.

“Usage alone is cheap, a good brand is liked, a great brand is loved.”

  • The difficulty with these practices are that some of these companies are big enough to get away with these manipulative techniques. The example will, undoubtedly, follow the letter of the law but not necessarily answer the question of ethics.
  • Getting people to sign up to recurring charges can often be overlooked by individuals and they’ll carry on paying without recognising consistent, small amounts of money exiting their account.
  • Beware, it’s easy to turn your brand into ‘too slick of a salesman’, it’s worthwhile remembering that not everybody is particularly comfortable with that.
  • Luckily, Harry stated that he believes that “a lot of companies are waking up to the fact that not pissing off your customers has a long term benefit”.


Written By
Ned Poulter is CEO & Founder of Pole Star Digital, a Digital Marketing Consultancy he runs alongside a number of entrepreneurial ventures. He spends his time developing and overseeing digital strategy for a number of well reputed international clients, developing creative approaches to achieving organic search results, increasing inbound traffic,...
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