When UI design goes rogue

User interface design and usability is usually a good thing. We try to make people’s lives easier by producing websites or software that make it obvious what to do and where to click. But what if UI design moves to the dark side and is used to push people into doing the opposite of what they wanted?

There can be a fine line between persuasion and deceit, and you have to have your wits about you if you don’t want to get fooled.

The ‘hide and seek’ button

When you want to access your online Barclays Bank account, you used to see a screen like this after entering your password.

Where is the button to access my account?

You’re focused on your goal of checking your accounts so you pay no notice to the rest of the page – the ‘continue’ button looks like the only choice to progress. But clicking on that button takes you off to a marketing opportunity, not your account. What you want is the ‘next’ button which is curiously hidden just under the fold.

Continue button

Where is the real button to progress?

Continue button with Next button just below the fold

There it is!

Now it could be a coincidence due to my screen resolution, but those buttons are almost identical in meaning and visual aspect, and it’s easy to mistake one for the other when you’re in a hurry. Even after seeing this screen several times I would still click on the wrong button and be interrupted with a commercial offer I wasn’t interested in.

Verdict: A cheeky trick that relies on muscle memory and task blindness to reel you in.

The ‘camouflage’ button

If you have the free AVG anti-virus installed it will ask you to upgrade once in a while. The upgrades remain free as you can see from the screenshot, and they prime you to expect a green button to finally access the upgrade.

It’s free…

But when you reach the download page the big green button that you will most likely click on without reading sells you the paid version –  the real button you want to click is hidden as much as possible. It’s at the bottom of the page, small, grey, inactive and uninteresting looking.

Verdict: A cheap trick – Find a more honest way to get me interested in the pay version.

…but we REALLY want you to buy the paid version

The ‘counterfeit’ button

Yes, I know it is bad to watch shows online from unofficial sources, not just because it’s a form of piracy but also because often you can’t trust the site. Here it is pretending to be a Firefox browser notification, the kind you get when you try to install a flash plugin. I don’t know for sure if it would download a virus but if it turned out to be a real video player then it would make it worse – that a legitimate software company would stoop as low as virus makers to spread their product.

Verdict: A shameful deceit that traps inexperienced users.

Fake Firefox notification

No need to be sneaky

If you have a product that you think your customers might like, don’t try to trick them into buying it – that approach will tend to backfire. Instead try to understand your customer and find honest ways to win them over where hopefully the value and the quality of the product will speak for itself.