The dark side: user experience design in marketing

With great power comes great responsibility.

That phrase originates in the Marvel comic series “Spiderman”. But it could have come from Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or any of those stories where the young hero discovers they have superpowers and spends the rest of the film learning to live with the consequences.

User experience design techniques are like a superpower. Get into your user's head, tweak the interface so it's just right, and Kapow! Magic experiences!

But like any superpower, there’s a dark side. Those research and design techniques can be just as good at tricking users into taking actions they didn’t mean to take, and sharing information they didn’t mean to share.

I’ve worked in marketing, and in user experience design, so I see both sides. I understand the urge to get people to download your free ebooks and sign up for your newsletters. But my design training makes me squirm when I read some of the advice currently doing the rounds on marketing blogs.

Nobody wants to click on your stuff

People are getting smarter now. They have inboxes overflowing with free ebooks, email courses, and step-by-step guides. They really don't want another newsletter.

But businesses still need signups, for their new app, webinar, or email list.

And that's when the temptation starts. If the facts aren't working, maybe we could sex things up a little?

For instance: I’ve seen a few online apps recently that suggest I “get started for free”. A more accurate offer would have been “start a free trial”. I’m sure “get started for free” delivers better click through rates, but it’s not exactly true, if I'm going to have to pay up or stop again in 14 days.

Extracting data with false promises is wrong

At least on those sites it was clear on the next screen that I was signing up for a trial. I could escape before handing over any information.

Other sites are even sneakier. For instance, a jobs board that failed to mention their hefty subscription fees until the end of the registration process. By that point, I'd already handed over quite a bit of information. Wanting a job is a pretty strong incentive to play along.

Or a personal styling site that encouraged both men and women to register. Only after I'd signed up did they reveal there wasn't a service for women yet. They’d just been gathering information.

Designing forms to trick people into signing up is wrong

I bet you’ve signed up at least once for an email newsletter you didn’t want. Default opt-ins are sneaky and hard to spot. Sometimes you have to uncheck a box to opt out of emails. Other times you have to check to opt out. Sometimes a site will make you check some boxes and uncheck others to avoid all their email spam.

I was almost caught by a pair of opt-ins, last week. The first checkbox was at registration and asked me to check a box to get their email. This is a default opt-out and it's the right thing to do. I thought I was done with email after that. So I nearly missed the second checkbox under the ‘buy now’ button. And that one was a default opt-in. Sneaky.

This isn’t accidental. Some designer has carefully thought through how to organise the checkboxes and their default settings to deliberately catch you out. Their goal is to get your permission to be spammed without you noticing.

Designers have a name for these tricks: ’dark patterns’

A dark pattern is a user interaction designed to trick you into doing something you didn’t mean to do. You can see a whole library of them at DarkPatterns.

In the design community, I find most people frown on this stuff. At least officially. UX design courses will teach you that dark patterns are a Bad Thing.

But it’s not only user experience designers that adopt user experience design techniques. Marketers use them too.

Some people's user experience design is more like user manipulation.

UX design is about understanding what people do and how they think, with the goal of creating easy and pleasant experiences. Marketing is also about understanding what people do and how they think, with the goal of selling stuff.

So it’s not surprising that the marketing profession gets excited about the power of user experience design. Especially the kind of interaction design that can influence a user to take a particular action in a particular way.

The difference is intent.

A user experience designer might tackle checkout design by focusing on helping the shopper buy their goods quickly and without making mistakes. A marketer might approach the same interaction by focusing on ways to get the shopper to sign up for a newsletter. They're both worrying about how and where to place text and fields and buttons, but they have rather different intentions.

Trickery, or clever marketing?

When you read through some of the tricks explained on DarkPatterns, or in this Verge article, I’m sure you’re outraged. You’d never do anything like that, would you?

Or would you?

Take for instance the two-step opt-in. That’s where you offer a free download at the click of a button (step one.) You don't ask for their email until the user has pressed the button to get the download (step two.)

There are dozens of articles explaining to aspiring bloggers why this is a brilliant idea for growing your email list. The theory is that users feel compelled to hand over their email once they’ve pressed the first button. In their head, they’ve already committed to getting the download.

Is that okay? Or a bit too manipulative? I’m not sure.

I use popup opt-ins on my site because I like to put them early in the article as well as at the end. I don’t like to interrupt the article with an inline form at that point. But when I read some new article that explains this approach as a clever way to manipulate users, I start to squirm.

If it sounds manipulative, it probably is.

Take another example: the landing page. This is a useful marketing tactic to make a clear offer to a user. Here’s my product, here’s why you might need it, here are the benefits that you’d get from signing up, here’s how to take action.

Landing pages are all over the internet, and they’re great. Mostly.

Except in the world of professional blogging, where they’re sometimes called ‘squeeze pages’. And with that change of name comes a complete change of attitude.

A squeeze page is a landing page designed to capture opt-in email addresses from potential subscribers. The goal of a squeeze page is to convince, cajole, or otherwise ”squeeze” a visitor into providing one of their most sought-after and coveted pieces of personal data: the email address.

Wordstream blog

Doesn’t feel so innocent now, does it? We’re not so much setting out our stall, as building a trap.

How far will you go to get people to click on your stuff?

I’m lucky in that I run my own business. I’m my own marketer and UX designer, so I get to choose. I’ll settle for slower growth in exchange for a comfortable conscience.

If you’re a user experience designer working for other people, you might have less flexibility. But even marketers have empathy - you just have to find a way to trigger it. And you’re a UX designer. Helping people to empathise with users is what you do.

Before you take on a client, ask yourself whether the problem the client is asking you to solve is one you feel good about attaching your name to.

Mike Monteiro, Design is a Job

And if you’re a marketer or entrepreneur trying to figure this user experience design stuff out, here’s a tip. Avoid all articles that promise ‘sneaky tricks’ for superlative growth. Trust your gut. If it feels creepy or manipulative, it probably is.

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