James Matthews, Principal Consultant at Ethology, warns of the perils of crossing over to the ‘dark side’ of UX.

James Matthews is Principal Consultant at Ethology, the missiontm's User Experience Consultancy. Ethology specialises in delivering insight-led customer experiences and increasing engagement and conversion by understanding how audiences interact with businesses and brands. Here he fills us in on the pitfalls to avoid.

As a UX Consultancy, Ethology works as an extension of Clients’ own digital teams or incumbent creative agencies, but also delivers end-to-end projects in collaboration with other integrated Agencies within the missiontm Group.

If you’ve ever struggled to unsubscribe from an email, close your account on a company’s website or accidentally signed up to additional services during an online purchase, you could have been at the receiving end of a dark UX tactic.

As UX practitioners we see UX as a force for good. We specialise in understanding who our Clients’ customers are and creating intuitive online experiences that are a pleasure for them to use. After all, if our Clients’ customers enjoy using the website or application we design, we can increase loyalty and ultimately create brand advocates.

But a competitive online space brings temptations to cross over to the dark side. And if we understand the motivations and behaviour of customers, we also know how to potentially manipulate their behaviour. At Ethology, it’s often our duty to steer Clients away from the dark side and advise when a UX tactic that could provide a short-term contribution to the bottom line doesn’t have a users’ interests in mind or, at worst, could cause long-term damage to brand credibility.
Here's a list of frequently used dark UX tactics:


As UX specialists our job is to facilitate a user’s goals by deciding what action they need to take at each stage in a journey and serving up the optimum design layout to facilitate this.

When a company attempts to drastically influence a user’s choice through design, leading them down a specific path by signposting options that are beneficial to the company but not necessarily the user, they’re at risk of raising suspicion and causing users to exit the very funnel they’re trying to guide them through.


Slyly inserting a secondary action, such as a pre-ticked opt-in to receive email communications or additional services before a user completes a key goal, is often employed as an online marketing or sales technique. And it’s a UX technique that can leave customers feeling deep resentment towards a brand.

Explicitly asking users to sign up to receive additional products or services will avoid customer complaints. And whilst companies will collect fewer email addresses by not pre-ticking a marketing opt-in, engagement and click-through rates among customers that do sign up will be higher.


Companies invest significant effort into creating seamless user journeys that allow users to sign up to a service or marketing communications at the click of a button. Hiding information about how to cancel the same service or unsubscribe from communications, or making the process unnecessarily complex, are both examples of deliberate action convolution that can create confusion and frustration among customers.


Companies offering subscription-based services often tempt users to sign up for a free trial, capturing credit card details as part of the process. Small print or terms and conditions will then state that payment will be automatically taken from a user’s account after the trial ends.
With users becoming savvier to the fact companies are banking on them forgetting to cancel services before trial-end, forced continuity is increasingly becoming a brand-damaging strategy. When recent studies have shown that capturing credit card details at the end of a trial period increases trial sign ups and long term customer allegiance, it’s also a cheeky tactic that is wholly unwarranted.


Whilst dark UX tactics may help companies hit short term marketing or sales targets, those that treat users with respect will create loyal, happy customers and long-term brand advocates. We’ll continue to help our Clients use UX as a force for good.

June 2017