Black Hat UX and How To Fight It

Conversion rates can be improved by designing experiences that are intentionally difficult
to use or that trick users. This needs to stop.

A few weeks ago I met a guy at a workshop, and we started talking about women and fast cars. Naturally, after about two minutes we arrived at user experience. He told me how his dream-job turned out to be a nightmare-job. His boss cared for only one thing: conversions. At first he fought back vigorously, but after a few days (of torture, one would assume) he bought a black hat, and ignored the crying hordes of the users. He did a few things that would make a mass murderer shiver.

Long story short, when the conversions increased (both in percentage and value), his boss was happy, but the users were not. Sound familiar? In the past 6 months 8 out of 10 ux professionals had to compromise user needs to please their boss. (The number comes from a rather small sample size of 30 UX professionals working in EU. One can only hope that the situation is better in the States.)

Black Hat UX – pictured: William Fichtner as Butch Cavendish in The Lone Ranger

Quick Win(?)

Black hat UX – The intentional act of creating suboptimal user experience. The most common black hat UX is ignoring issues discovered through user research in favour of business goals or internal agendas. So if you keep the confusing pricing structure, despite user research showing that users hate it, you are wearing a black hat. (I will not show real world examples in this article, because I don’t believe in “name and shame”.)

If you work in user experience or are interested in switching to the user-centric side, you should avoid being a black hat UX expert. In this article I will tell you why and how. If you are working with UXers this can be your reality check. If the agency or expert you work with wears the black hat, you might want to consider having a long discussion with them, or start looking for someone with a brighter hat (and mind).

Black hat UX?

I met Phil Pearce at the Superweek 2013 conference, where both of us were invited as speakers. His talk was about Black Hat Analyics, and it inspired me to write this blogpost… as expected, it took me 2 years to finish it.

The term “black hat” has its roots in western movies. Hat colours were used to distinguish the villains (wearing black hats) from the “good guys” or heroes (wearing white hats). This was especially helpful when black and white movies were played on small screen TVs.

With the dawn of the internet age, the term started to be used to describe those who perform unethical actions with computers. Those actions always result in something that is undesirable for the users. Stealing money from their bank account is an obvious example. Black hat SEO seemingly tricks the search engine, but as a result the users get poor search results.

User experience experts should be champions of the user. How can they wear the black hat? Unfortunately, in the past decade I have encountered many black hat UX “experts”. Now, how can one fight black hat?

Name and shame?

The most notable effort (so far) to fight black hat UX can be accredited to Harry Brignull, who created and curates Dark Patterns. Although I can’t agree with his solution “to name and shame sites” that use dark patterns (black hat UX design techniques), he was the first to raise awareness of black hat UX.

“Name and shame” was not the solution fight black hat SEO or black hat analytics, and it did not work for black hat UX either. The site has not been updated recently (I checked in 8th of March 2015 and the most recent addition was from June 2013), and the list of updates shows that it lost momentum within a year after launch in 2010. I think that shaming something, even if it is a website, is never a good answer. You can’t answer negativity with negativity. In the long run only a positive solution could work.

Why Black Hat UX works? Or how alien the users are?

Dreamsnake 1st edition cover
“Isolated from new knowledge, the healers had understood that their dreamsnakes were alien, but they had not been able to comprehend just how alien. […] But in all those passionate arguments, no one had been on the side of the truth.” (from Dreamsnake, a novel written by Vonda N. McIntyre)

Although you can trick users using black hat UX tricks, to increase certain numbers (like conversion rate), or decrease other numbers (shopping cart abandonment), this practice is not only unethical, but hurts user experience and thus the company you are working for in the long run.

The only reason something like this can be even be considered is because user-centric thinking is not part of the corporate culture. Users are considered “alien” by quite a few companies, and they seldom comprehend that the situation is more complex than “getting more cash from them”.

How to beat Black Hat UX?

1. Education

We can’t out-hate black hat UX, but we should try to out-teach it. On a global scale, public events organised by UXPA, UXMNL and other similar entities help the industry tremendously.

As more and more universities will start user experience courses, the next generation of black hat UXers will have a very hard time selling their snake oil.

2. Communication

Remember the guy with the nightmare job from the first paragraph? I think communication could have solved the issue. (Giving notice to your boss is also a form of communication, but I would start with less extreme measures at first.)

What you can do is to have a discussion/meeting supported with user research (not your opinion versus theirs). I would call this “balancing user needs and business needs”. This is a lot easier if user centricity starts to get into the corporate culture.

3. Corporate culture

Make user-centricity part of the corporate culture! The hardest sounding solution can be easily achieved. One of our clients, AO.com invites everyone into a large meeting room on each Friday and they watch users use their website through videos, while they eat pizza. This is not only a great team-building event, but through those remote UX videos everyone gets genuine user feedback, not only the UX team.

My Darling Clementine

Futuresight

I think, that similar to SEO and Analytics, the number of black hat practitioners will dwindle as the industry matures. User experience is at the dawn of its golden age, and there is no place for black hat UX in that bright future. (Note to self: I should avoid clichés, like the plague.)

Will we ever beat black hat UX? What do you think? Am I missing something from the big picture, maybe one more way to beat it or the secret weapon? Please comment below.


 

This Black Hat UX article was originally posted on 8th March 2015 by Peter W Szabo on the Kaizen-UX blog. Peter is the Head of UX at WhatUsersDo.

No Responses to “Black Hat UX and How To Fight It

  • Hi Peter,

    great post, I enjoyed reading your perspective on the name and shame culture. I think I understand what you’re saying that naming and shaming can come across as very negative.

    I believe Harry Brignull’s original purpose was to literally point out danger sites and help people recognise common dark patterns so they didn’t fall for them. It’s likely that as general awareness of black hat UX has grown there’s less need to expose specific examples. However, like any con, when it becomes known a new con has to be thought up. For that reason I can see an argument for continuing to show examples – perhaps without showing which site it’s on.

    I actually submitted some examples myself, they’re in the ‘Mis-direction’ category. That was after you’d visited in early March.

    I also write ‘teardowns’ from time to time which are essentially reviews. These are a little different to naming & shaming style posts as I know bad UX is usually not intentional. I don’t go on the attack, instead I talk about good and bad design elements.

    I agree that getting rid of dark patterns/black hat UX will take more than naming and shaming. The most effective thing would be to show that dark patterns don’t produce sustained growth. And if consumers realise through naming and shaming that they shouldn’t be putting up with ‘accidentally’ buying the more expensive option then that’s good isn’t it?

    • Thanks a lot for the reply Hazel. I love the teardowns approach you mentioned.
      “The most effective thing would be to show that dark patterns don’t produce sustained growth.” Also true, but short term benefits might blind senior management. The same thing happened with black-hat SEO, until Google got a lot more efficient in weeding-out the wrong-doers.

  • Hi Peter,

    great post, I enjoyed reading your perspective on the name and shame culture. I think I understand what you’re saying that naming and shaming can come across as very negative.

    I believe Harry Brignull’s original purpose was to literally point out danger sites and help people recognise common dark patterns so they didn’t fall for them. It’s likely that as general awareness of black hat UX has grown there’s less need to expose specific examples. However, like any con, when it becomes known a new con has to be thought up. For that reason I can see an argument for continuing to show examples – perhaps without showing which site it’s on.

    I actually submitted some examples myself, they’re in the ‘Mis-direction’ category. That was after you’d visited in early March.

    I also write ‘teardowns’ from time to time which are essentially reviews. These are a little different to naming & shaming style posts as I know bad UX is usually not intentional. I don’t go on the attack, instead I talk about good and bad design elements.

    I agree that getting rid of dark patterns/black hat UX will take more than naming and shaming. The most effective thing would be to show that dark patterns don’t produce sustained growth. And if consumers realise through naming and shaming that they shouldn’t be putting up with ‘accidentally’ buying the more expensive option then that’s good isn’t it?

    • Thanks a lot for the reply Hazel. I love the teardowns approach you mentioned.
      “The most effective thing would be to show that dark patterns don’t produce sustained growth.” Also true, but short term benefits might blind senior management. The same thing happened with black-hat SEO, until Google got a lot more efficient in weeding-out the wrong-doers.

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