#007 – Still Untitled

Deceptive design is bad

The user sets out to do one thing, but a different, undesirable thing happens instead. In some cases, extremely undesirable!

10 September 2021

Contents of this issue:
    Add a header to begin generating the table of contents
    Piccia Neri's face looking up to the left, with a smile and the sunlight behind her

    By Piccia Neri

    Reading time:
    10-12 minutes

    Like this article? Sign up to the “Still Untitled” newsletter to read it before anyone else, and to get exclusive news and offers.
    By Piccia Neri.

    Do not bait. Do not switch. Just don’t do it.

    I remember my childhood (up to a point) as a luminous experience. I was a lucky little thing: healthy, happy and loved in a nurturing environment with siblings I adored; I was vivacious, always ready to laugh.

    [Don’t worry: it wouldn’t take long before I became the grumpy introvert I’m known to be now. Soon as I started reading properly, I also started shunning human company].

    Up to a certain age I was, in fact, what you would call the life of the party.

    That’s why when  I went to a friend’s birthday party, I’d say we were about 7, their mother turned to me to help her with a great game.

    “You’ll be so great for this! You’re the cleverest one, no one else is nearly as intelligent as you! Please help me with this game, I can’t do it without you! Only you and I will know that I’m choosing you because you’re the most brilliant mind, no one else would be able to get this game to the end, not even my son… Don’t tell him I told you this! And it’s a surprise for his birthday, you will both get a wonderful present at the end!”

    You can imagine my excitement, delight and pride at being singled out like this – the cleverest one! I felt so important and special! And it was our secret that she thought so highly of me – I was even better than her own son. Only I had the ability to accomplish this incredible feat, a marvellous surprise for the boy’s birthday.

    So I enthusiastically said yes, of course!

    After I accepted, my friend’s mother told me she would blindfold me. The aim of the game was for me to be led to the end of an obstacle course while unable to see where I was going, only following verbal instructions. A great prize would await me upon successful completion – the best present ever, for me and for the birthday boy.

    I trusted her blindly

    So there I was, in my friend’s garden, blindfolded on the lawn, listening to this woman’s instructions to get to the end of this obstacle course, while  dozens of children were shouting at the top of their lungs, either guiding me or actively trying to get me off course.

    I remember this so vividly: the din of shrill childish voices, the smell of the grass, the warm sun on my skin, the total concentration to block the kids out and only listen to the mother’s cues in order to make it to the end, because I couldn’t disappoint this woman, could I? She told me I was the cleverest! The only one who could do this! She needed me to deliver the present to her son!

    Towards the end, the screams get even louder. So loud! This must be it! I’m at the end! The mother is urging me on, yelling Yes! Yes! You’re there Piccia! You’re so great! Just one step now… JUST ONE MORE STEP!

    … I took that step. Because I trusted this woman blindly – quite literally.

    And that last step downwards, that I took with such blind faith, plunged me straight into a paddling pool full of water. Fully clothed and blindfolded.

    The noise went even louder – unbearable.

    It was the sound of ignominy.

    It was the sound of 30 children hysterically laughing at me.

    They’d been anticipating this moment in a frantic crescendo, inevitably leading to my planned burning humiliation.

    Who was laughing?
    Everyone else but me.

    When is a joke not funny?

    A joke is not funny when it tricks and humiliates others.

    To add insult to injury, I had a hole in my sock. I remember my face burning with shame when this woman, the mother, took me inside to give me a change of clothes. She told me to take my shoes off – and I thought, oh my gawd, on top of all the rest, she’ll see the hole. Eternal shame! I wanted to die.

    That was obviously the end of the party for me – I don’t think I was able to utter another word. And this woman kept nagging me “why are you not laughing? I chose you because you have the best sense of humour!”.

    This, my friends, is what Deceptive Design is like.

    Dark leaves
    Ominous dark leaves. What lurks beneath? Is it my burning humiliation? Photo by Alex Dukhanov on Unsplash

    Deceptive Design

    On the web, what this evil monster of a woman did to innocent little me would be called Bait and switch.

    The user sets out to do one thing, but a different, undesirable thing happens instead. In some cases, extremely undesirable!

    As undesirable as being plunged into a pool while fully clothed and blindfolded, thinking you’re about to be rewarded with glory and a splendid gift.

    Or as thinking that you’re closing a window, while in fact you’re unwittingly authorising a lethal upgrade that will make your computer explode.

    Screenshot of forum message from 2016, describing how the Microsoft Windows 10 upgrade had a red "x" button in the top right that initialised it instead of dismissing it. This is called a "Bait and Swithc" deceptive design.

    When I first sent this email to my subscribers, I used the term “Dark Patterns”, which was coined by Harry Brignull in 2010. The term has since been changed to “Deceptive Design”, a more inclusive way of describing evil marketing tricks.

    Starting from 2010, Harry singled out and identified all those shady marketing and UX practices that make you do things that you didn’t mean to, like buying or signing up for something. Then the concept expanded to include many types of deceptive practices – one of them being Bait and switch.

    I was thinking about such practices today because I am working on the UX Writing module for the UX Blueprint course. I will definitely include a lesson on deceptive designs, because unfortunately they are ubiquitous these days. Even good people use them!

    Typical example: a button to reject an offer for a course on how to make money with passive income, along the lines of

    No, thanks, I don’t want to make money in my sleep”

    This one is called Confirmshaming and is unfortunately absolutely everywhere, every day. And I hate it.

    For more examples of appalling deceptive design practices in action, check out Still Untitled #008.

    And if you notice any examples of deceptive designs that make you grit your teeth, please write back to me.

    In the meantime, do follow Harry Bignull’s Deceptive Design Twitter account. I love it because it doesn’t only name and shame (and name and shame it does! Dark patterners deserve no anonymity): it also points out good UX that provides the diametrically opposite experience to a dark pattern.

    Differences between UX and UI

    You’ve probably seen the image below, or a similar one. They are ridiculous. There is so much that is wrong with this, it’s almost hard to know where to start.

    A man walks on a path on the grass, bearing the words "User experience", in a diagonal line, cutting through a tiled walkway with the words "Design"

    The great thing is that I don’t have to start! Paul Boag explains it all wonderfully, in a post where he talks about the differences about UX and UI design – and takes on those silly, click-baitey posts that we see so often on LinkedIn or Twitter, often sporting the image above.

    Paul also clarifies misunderstandings relative to the roles of UX designer and UI designer, while tackling a few other misconceptions: I think this is a post I’ll refer back to quite often.

    In case you missed it: What on earth where you thinking…?

    Metal letters on a wall, laid out in such a way that it becomes impossible to discern any meaningful words from them.

    I know, you might have seen some of these fails before. But I don’t care how many times I see them: design fails always make me laugh. So much human ingenuity actually has to be poured into some of these creations! They are indeed notable efforts by some fine minds. I bet they researched their audience exhaustively, too.

    I hope you enjoy this rather remarkable collection of design fails.

    Like this article? Sign up to the “Still Untitled” newsletter to read it before anyone else, and to get exclusive news and offers.
    By Piccia Neri.

    The Design for Conversions Newsletter

    Scroll to Top