Deceiving your customers: dark patterns or bad design?

dark patterns

(This post originally appeared on the carwow Product & Engineering blog on Medium)

You may find this hard to believe, but not all people behind your favourite websites have your best interests in mind. Some, you might even say, are out to squeeze every last penny from you before you leave.

Ads covering every spare pixel are tiring and overlays can be downright condescending, but at least they’re being upfront about their intentions. The sneaky ones, the ones you can’t easily see, the ones built into the design – the ‘dark patterns’ – perhaps they’re the worst of all.

What are Dark Patterns?

Sounds like some kind of conspiracy theory from the dimly lit corners of the web, but ‘dark patterns’ is the term coined for practices on the web that deceive users into doing something unintended. You expect one thing, you get another., a site dedicated to educating people on the practices and naming and shaming offenders, describes it as:

“Normally when you think of “bad design”, you think of the creator as being sloppy or lazy but with no ill intent. This type of bad design is known as a “UI anti-pattern”. Dark Patterns are different?—?they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.”

There are some great examples of this in the library on that site, but I want to share a possible dark pattern I personally encountered last week.

Colour me bad

Now on the grand scale of things, this one isn’t in the ‘Super-Evil’ category, more in the ‘Oh, that’s cheeky’ tier. And I feel a little bad naming them, as I liked the product and it was very helpful to me on a recent research project, but…

Informizely, formerly known as Insitez, offer a number of online survey tools?—?I’d used their very useful exit survey product to help understand why users were leaving a particular page on our website. It served it’s purpose, but I didn’t need it any more and didn’t want to keep on paying the monthly subscription fee.

So I logged into my account and opted to unsubscribe. This was the message I was presented with:

colour based dark patterns

It seemed so simple, but I hesitated. My brain went ___________. What had stopped me? It was only a fraction of a second and as soon as I realised I had to chuckle.

The colours were the wrong way round. Accepted norms in colour psychology say ‘red means stop, green means go’. If I want to proceed I click the green thing. Don’t I? Er, no.

Were they trying to trick me into keeping my subscription or could it just be ‘bad design’? The latter is possible, I suppose. A quick straw poll of a handful of designers in the office was met with laughter.


I’m guessing they’re not convinced. I’m just not sure what the thought process could have been behind the innocent selection of those colours and labels.

We’ll never know. I cancelled anyway. Using the red button. (that was the right one, wasn’t it?)

Lesson Learned

What can we take away from this? To borrow from Google… ‘Don’t be evil’. If you’re charged with growing a business, employing dark patterns might deliver you short term gains, but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth of your duped (/nearly duped) customers, serving only to build long term distrust in your brand.

**Bonus Dark Pattern**

In writing this I realised I encountered another potential dark pattern recently, buying trainers on the Sports Direct website. has a category for this type?—?the rather descriptive ‘Sneaky into basket’.

I selected a pair of Astroturf trainers, went to the checkout to pay, only to do a double take when I realised a magazine had automatically been added to my basket. It was only £1, but I certainly had no interest in it and was peeved that it had been added.

I wonder what percentage of customers complete their purchase completely unaware of this surreptitious addition?

shopping basket dark patterns

Main photo: Samuel Zeller

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Posted in Business Performance, Conversion Testing, Customer Experience, Product Development, UX

Don’t let the HiPPO drive the bus


This article first appeared on the carwow blog on Medium.

Gut feel and opinion go a long way, but it can also take you down the wrong path if you don’t listen to your audience. At carwow, we’re strongly opinionated but it doesn’t rule our decision-making. We use data and user feedback to inform our opinions and decisions about product development and the ideal customer experience and we’re better off for it.

Where do the Hippos come in?

‘HiPPO’ is a term I first heard 5 years ago. It an acronym for ‘Highest PaidPerson’s Opinion’ and was used to describe how many companies make decisions about their product development and marketing. When faced with a decision, the choice was made based on the opinion of a senior figure, with an absence of data or a conscious decision to ignore it.

My view of a HiPPO is less about the seniority and pay grade of an individual and more about the mindset. It’s very easy to believe we know best, or to assume “I could easily be our target customer” but it can be a dangerous habit. I’ve been working on websites since the last millennium (1999?—?yes, I’m that old!) and I’ve lost track of the number of conversion optimisation tests where I’ve guessed the wrong winner. You just don’t know. You need more information.

So if guessing is not an option…?

If you can accept that you don’t know all the solutions to your business problems, then the answer is very simple. You listen.

There are cryptic clues, hidden messages, explicit complaints, enthusiastic endorsements all over your business and from a wide variety of sources. Sometimes you just have to shut up and listen for them.

It’s a trait that’s strong in those who contribute to developing the product atcarwow.

So how do we listen?

The information you seek comes in many forms and so you need to listen in different ways. This list isn’t extensive but does highlight a few of our methods.


To see what is happening we use a variety of data reporting sources?—?primarily MixPanel, Google Analytics and our own internal customer data. We can see who is using our website, how they interact and convert, and identify bottlenecks that are hindering growth.

On a more granular level, we can review pages using clickmaps, heatmaps and (one of my favourites) video recordings of users interacting with specific functionality on the site.

Feedback methods

Analytics is great at the ‘what’ part, but pretty lacking when it comes tounderstanding the ‘why’. Why are users bouncing from your homepage? Why are they dropping out on your signup form? Why are they unsubscribing from your beautifully crafted emails?

Listen. They’re telling you why.

User testing sessions

These are fun, try it. With user testing, you ask a participant to carry out tasks on your website, whilst you sit next to them and observe. They think out loud, telling you what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and how it makes them feel. All the while, you’re screaming inside your head:

“Click the big green button! It’s right there in front of you!!”

It’s an enlightening experience that really underlines the (potentially incorrect) assumptions you’ve made about how your product should function.

Don’t pass over this method thinking you don’t have the capability or experience to run these sessions. Instead, pick up a copy of Steve Krug’s book ‘Rocket Surgery Made Easy’. It’s a quick and immensely valuable read that will have you testing within the week.

Customer visits

Unlike user testing sessions which can be done in your office or in a testing lab, you can also learn a great deal by observing your customer in their own environment. carwow is a two-sided marketplace, matching car buyers with dealers, so we often visit the dealerships to see how our business customers incorporate our service into their working lives. You quickly spot the holes you can’t see from your desk.

Customer feedback loops

One of my favourite elements about the structure of carwow is that the Customer Service team are part of Product Development. If our goal is to build a product that enables the best car buying experience you’ll ever have, anyone needing to interact with Customer Service is evidence that we must continue to find ways to make it better. And if you’ve ever looked at the information handled by a Customer Service team then you’ll know it’s an embarrassment of riches for anyone looking to improve their service.

First places to look? Dive into your helpdesk enquiries, chat session dataand your phone call transcripts. You’ll find problems, solutions, ideas and emotions.

Exit Surveys

When you look at analytics data, the most depressing moment is when a visitor leaves, task incomplete. Why? What put them off?

We’ll never know, is the natural assumption, they’ve gone. Well, true, but we can always ask them as they head out the door. Add an exit survey to your problematic page?—?a little slide-in single question survey box that appears as the user’s mouse moves perilously close to the browser menu bars?—?and ask them what’s wrong.

We did this on a signup form on carwow, asking:

What made you decide not to sign up today?


The results were illuminating, giving us some quick-fix issues to address and food for thought for some conversion tests to run. Handily, they’re also a great tool for capturing the voice of the customer, so you can use the same terminology they use in your web and email copy and not the usual jargon-laden marketing babble.

Insights as far as the eye can see. Now what?

I think you’ll agree, if you’ve looked at your analytics, spoken with customers and observed their actions, then you’re in a better, much more informed place to make decisions.

At carwow, all this information feeds into our design and development process. Our product managers, UX designers and developers assimilate this knowledge into our designs and code.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say, so we A/B test major changes with our audience, ensuring that the choices we made based on their feedback were the correct ones.

And if not, we go back to the information, we listen some more and we iterate.

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Posted in Business Performance, Conversion Testing, Customer Experience, Product Development

Is Google’s No Captcha reCaptcha A Conversion Killer?



Spam is a pain in the arse. That’s pretty much something we all agree on. Some of it’s destructive; some malicious; most of it pointless; clogging up email; bloating CRM systems and messing up tracking and reporting.

reCAPTCHA, the most common counter measure, has long been a frustrating user experience, resulting in many an abandoned attempt to submit a web form. So when I heard about Google’s re-imagining of the reCAPTCHA I had to take a look.

So what is Google’s No CAPTCHA reCAPTCHA?

In announcing the release on their online security blog, Google claim that their new API, which ‘radically simplifies the reCAPTCHA experience‘, will enable users ‘to securely and easily verify they’re human without actually having to solve a CAPTCHA. Instead, with just a single click, they’ll confirm they’re not a robot‘. Read more ›

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Posted in Business Performance, Conversion Testing, Customer Experience

How to growth hack your business and achieve sustainable results

Growth Hacking Conference London 2014 by Dan Barker

The first rule of Growth Hacking? Don’t talk about growth hacking.

That was my paraphrased tweet quoting one of the speakers at the Growth Hacking Conference in London recently. It seems I’m not the only one who isn’t a fan of the name but feels the principles behind it are sound, if a little misunderstood.

Many people (maybe just us Brits?) roll their eyes when they hear the phrase ‘growth hacking’, thinking it’s a cheesy term applied to the processes of inflating numbers exceptionally quickly with a goal of reaching a ridiculous valuation figure that gets Mark Zuckerberg jingling his pocket change.

So it was refreshing to hear so many of the speakers at the conference talking about sustainable growth – yes, build a product that scales, but also one that provides value to its audience, not just for 3 days, 3 weeks weeks or 3 months, but on an ongoing basis. A product that would be missed if it were no longer there.

I scribbled a lot of notes throughout that day, so let me share a few of them here, along with the speaker slidedecks. If you want more, head over to the collaborative Google doc that was edited live throughout the event.

Read more ›

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Posted in Business Performance, Conversion Testing, Customer Experience, Innovation, Product Development, Search Engine Marketing

Watch what happens to your web traffic when your TV ad airs

Have you ever wondered what impact a TV ad has on a website when it airs?

I don’t mean overall impact, such as an increase in brand awareness or revenue. I mean the IMMEDIATE impact.

As in, if my advert appears on TV right now, what happens on the website?

Let’s find out

The introduction of Realtime into Google Analytics was a wondrous thing for digital marketers. It provides an opportunity to get a feeling for what is happening right now on a website, without having to rely on day old data. It can be very exciting (and a little mesmerising).

When, my previous employer, ran a new TV campaign in January 2013 it presented a perfect opportunity to answer my question of ‘what happens next?Read more ›

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Posted in Business Performance, Videos


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