3 reasons you should care about “black hat” UX Design on your website


Sneaky black hat marketing is putting things in your basket!

One of the things we pride ourselves on at Niche is really smart User Experience (UX) design on websites.  Clever UX design can mean the difference between a customer staying on your site or leaving it; or buying an additional product; or really loving your brand.

As with any design, it gives you the opportunity to persuade users of your site into behaving or interacting in a particular way, so it’s important to get it right.

But to what extent do you need to – and to what extent should you – persuade people?

What the heck is “black hat” design?

I was recently enjoying a really awesome presentation by Harry Brignull of Dark Patterns, who spoke at UX Brighton about “black hat” UX design. Simply put, “black hat” UX design covers a whole area of User Experience design whereby designers trick users into selecting a particular (and usually more profitable) option on a website where money is exchanged for products / services.

A great example of this is when airlines have a pre-selected check box on your airline booking form online that forces you to pay extra for a service that you might not be aware of.

Whilst this may not seem quite so bad when it includes, say, a carbon offset fee, when it comes to travel insurance or extra baggage fees, people are likely to be duped into paying for something they never wanted or needed.

It’s misleading to the customer, and it’s bad for your brand.

So why is “black hat” UX so evil?

Brignull draws a beautiful parallel here: black hat UX is essentially like being at the grocery store, and having the store manager come up and sneak something into your shopping cart.

Black hat UX specifically designs stealthy “add-ons” so that they will be easily missed by our already stretched attention spans.

The problem here is that whilst, in the real world, that huge box of Coco Pops might stand out quite obviously on top of your healthful greens, our eyes are constantly filtering data in the digital world. We are skim readers and our focus is almost always stretched by content overload.

Black hat UX takes advantage of this filtering by specifically designing stealthy “add-ons” and other tricky (and costly) extras so that they will be easily missed by our already stretched attention spans.

An Air Newzealand booking form sets paid insurances to default, with the hopes of catching passengers unaware

An Air New Zealand booking form sets paid insurances to default, with the hopes of catching passengers unaware.


But isn’t black hat UX good for profit?

In the short term, it might seem that black hat UX is profitable for your business, and there’s no denying that plenty of big companies use it to scam their customers all the time.

However, look at the other side of the coin – here’s the damage that black hat UX design can do to your brand:

  1. A sneaky user experience on your site can lead to very bad word of mouth – if you piss off Jane Smith by sneaking add-ons into her online shopping experience, she’s unlikely to refer you, and her facebook friends are sure to hear about it = very bad result for your brand.
  2. Users may well bombard your other means of communication (office phone/call centre) to get out of services or products you’ve sneakily signed them up to – this wastes your business’s resources, and leads to drawn-out and angry phone conversations that leave your customers furious.
  3. There could be massive legal ramifications – if your black hat UX is just dodgy enough, you may well find yourself in trouble with the law for misleading consumers.

What’s the way forward?

Brignull advocates the need for a code of ethics that UX Designers should comply to, and can use as an “out” when their bosses or clients ask them to design something that is clearly lacking in moral fibre – or worse, outright misleading.

I wholeheartedly agree, and I wish that businesses were held more accountable to the promises they make about their products and services, particularly in the retail market. But then, any business that bases its profits solely on trickery and sleight-of-hand probably has issues that are much bigger than any black hat UX design can fix.

A UX design code of ethics would also help protect businesses from consulting designers and developers who promise short term results but deliver nothing but a PR nightmare down the track.

I’d be keen to see comments from other UX designers and businesses as to whether a code of ethics is worthwhile, or whether you’re for or against black hat UX in the first place.

Images are from darkpatterns.org

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