In Ethical Storytelling, we explore how to tell stories with dignity. As a digital designer working since 2008 to help brands reach their business goals, I’ve seen a rising trend in the user experience (UX) industry: unethical design patterns that manipulate people into action.

What is unethical design?

Dark patterns (a.k.a. unethical design) are tricks on a website or application that mislead users into doing something that they have no intention of doing. These patterns gained attention during the 2012 election year with the rise of fake news creeping its way into social media and our inboxes. Today even the most informed web user can be tricked without realizing it.

Mike Monteiro is the co-founder and design director of Mule Design and author of the popular essay, “A Designer’s Code of Ethics.” In an interview with Slate, he said:

“Designers have been running fast and free with no ethical guidelines. And that was fine when we were designing posters and sites for movies. But now design is interpersonal relationships on social media, health care, financial data traveling everywhere, the difference between verified journalism and fake news. And this is dangerous.”

Unethical design and dark design patterns purposefully target vulnerabilities in our brains to motivate action, oftentimes without us even knowing it. The way we browse, search, and endlessly scroll is all manipulated to get more likes, more shares, and more sales. User interaction has evolved rapidly, but the code of ethics hasn’t kept up.

One example of this is using auto-filled checkboxes to trick the user into poorly disclosed actions. Sometimes apps have options pre-selected that will dig into your photos, contacts, or personal information. It’s only after you lazily click “yes” that you realize you just mass-invited your contact list.

Another example is misleading popups with hard-to-locate close buttons. This popup tricks users into thinking the “subscribe” button is the only way forward.

Some eCommerce stores include automatic but undesired add-ons. I have had to remove extra luggage fees, travel insurance, and pre-purchased food from airline checkout systems–when all I wanted was the flight.

Or, if you’ve ever shopped around for hotel rooms, how often have you felt pressured to make a purchase sooner than you were ready? They designed it that way. They use countdown clocks or “8 people are looking at this room right now” notifications to create a false sense of urgency and scarcity and urge users into hastily making purchases they can’t take back.

People have been abusing search engine algorithms since the beginning of the internet, but now some designers are manipulating users through psychological tricks and deceptive layouts.

Strategies to improve your user experience that avoid unethical design

1. Respect Your Visitor

Tristan Harris, the founder of the Center for Humane Technology, developed Humane Design, a simple guideline for respecting the user’s well-being. Humane Design focuses on eliminating detours, removing dead-ends, reducing distractions, minimizing misinterpretations, giving paths that allow users to disconnect with minimal effort, and respecting the user’s schedule.

We’re familiar with asking ourselves, “How would I want my story told?” when writing content. We should also consider, “How would I want to interact with my own website?” Empower your users to make their own decisions without funneling them into what you want. Don’t bombard them with popups. Don’t hit them with an auto-played video when they open your site. Don’t hide sound controls. Don’t hide close buttons on your popup (or hit them with 3 popups right after landing on your site). Keep your site architecture natural and easy to exit. How many of us have ended up at the end of a shopping cart and couldn’t edit the items? This is poor design, and doesn’t respect the user’s decisions, needs, time, and freedom.

2. Make Sure You’re Compliant

Compliance – the bare minimum to ethical marketing online. There are two types of compliance to be aware right now, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) and Europe’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation).

ADA requires you to think about how users with disabilities are able to use your digital products. When building your site, your developer needs to plan alternative user paths. What will happen if a screen-reader reads your content? What about if someone needs to magnify your site 200% to be able to read it? Can you navigate your forms with only a keyboard? These are the things that users with disabilities have to deal with, and it’s respectful to build your site with all types of users in mind.

GDPR is an EU regulation that created new rules for how companies manage and share personal data online. Even if you are outside of the EU, it applies to any user who is an EU resident. There are a few things to note about the legality of collecting data, what it means and how to do it, but we also want to point out an important ethical point: consent.

Under GDPR and modern practices for data privacy, consent plays a big role in two ways:

You must obtain informed consent: a user making an educated decision to give you permission to contact them or use their data, after you have notified them of how their data will be used.

You must provide choice: a user changing their mind and revoking consent, altering their data in your systems, and requesting that you completely forget all of their data (and that you actually do delete all data).

3. Don’t Steal

If you lack a budget for good photography or content, “borrowing” online can be enticing. Avoid the temptation. Even though the interwebs is a big place, people are smart and can call you out for misusing other people’s intellectual property. Getting in trouble or building a negative reputation for stealing others’ content is not what you want at the end of the day. Take the harder path and create your own content.

There are places where you can get commercial-use photography for free like and Just always be sure to check the copyright restrictions first, credit when needed, and ask for clarity if you are unsure.

Create with empathy

The user experience design industry exists for a reason. We learn how to best move a user from point A to point B through visual cues. But, if we are more worried about making the next dollar instead of creating a positive experience for our users, we have missed the mark.

We need to learn how to ethically motivate a user to action in order to better digital products and authentic experiences. I challenge fellow professionals to really think about respecting our audience when they interact with our brands online. We all want a better return on investment, especially when it comes to websites, social media marketing, and email campaigns. But if we want to be ethical in all aspects of our organizations, we should also consider the sneaky implications of user experience design.