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The Art of Deception — A Designer’s Handbook to Cheating Users

There are certain ways you, as a designer can ensure that your users are deceived. You won’t believe the third point will blow your mind.

A clickbait photo of the author pointing at something pointed at with a screaming emoji

Ok, now that the clickbait title and thumbnail made you click the link, let me tell you I am not here to teach you how to deceive and cheat your users. You may have seen malpractices and dark patterns all over the web in abundance. But as a designer, it is your moral responsibility to call out wrong practices and play your part to make the web a saner and honest.

So sorry, there is no handbook, and cheating is wrong. You monster!

The web of today is infested with dark patterns, deception and clickbaits. As someone with certain technology knowledge, it may be easy to spot a problem. But it’s quite hard for low-tech communities to navigate through the amount of deception out there. As designers, there is something we can do to help them surf a safer, honest web. You won’t believe the third fact will blow your mind. Read on:

14 people are reading this blog right now.

Not they’re not. That’s a lie. If you’ve visited any hotel or travel website, you may have seen how a number of people are looking at the same thing that you’re looking at and how it will magically be sold out a moment later. Scarcity is scary.

A reddit post tried to expose how this is simply an artificial function created to instill users with fear and encourage them making the purchase right away. Yes, users will buy in to scarcity, and this is a malpractice many designers use to exploit the users’ innate vulnerabilities. Booking a hotel room should not be so hard, and companies need to be more honest with their customers. It really helps build a relationship in the long term.

Is it an ad? Is it the content?

Remember good ol’ days when the media was explicit about ads being ads. Still today in print media, advertisers are required to place a little “Advt.”. They do it simply out of honesty to their profession. But the web is causing the lines to blur. It is becoming harder and harder to tell the difference between ad and content in a website.

Most download websites fully embrace the art of deception and place ads containing the words “Download” bigger and bolder than the actual download button. Also, a lot of news websites have these section in the bottom of their pages that make the ads looks like real further reading, but in fact they’re just bunch of junk that serve no purpose other than the enrich the website with earnings per click. Dark, dark times!

Low-tech groups are most vulnerable to deception

Has your uncle ever called you, very seriously, to help them further process the one million lottery that they received an email for? And those who very seriously believe what they see on clickbait links on Facebook? Yes, that’s the group we need to be most worried about. They don’t understand technology the way we do. One of my aunts always used the phrase “फेसबुकमा दिएको थियो” (loosely “they showed it on Facebook”) to describe something she had seen online. She believed that Facebook was a media network like a TV or radio, and the videos, content put up there were from professionals. Well, some of them are, but there also are a lot of people who rely on click-based ad as their primary source of revenue. That’s where the fake news comes from, and low-tech groups cannot tell the difference. We, as designers are responsible for helping fake news look real. They don’t understand technology the way we do. We must help them understand how they interact with technology, and what’s at stake.

Why does it matter?

You could argue that businesses have been cheating customers forever. Yes, for centuries, there have been bait and switch, hidden costs, scams and every evil practice known to humans. Brands and advertisers have been deceiving customers from as early as when retail and trade became a thing. So why the web matters now?

Well, it mattered during physical retail and it matters now. It’s not something that became a problem since web became a thing. Honest designers dealt this problem their way in the past, and web designers need to deal it their way.

Why are you blaming the designer?

Well, designers need to take some, if not the whole blame for making interaction deceptive. Most of these decisions come from the stakeholders, agreed. But as a designer, we need to take our stance wherever we can. It’s not about revolting or going against the ask, but informing the stakeholders (product managers, clients, etc.) that wrong is wrong.

I believe it is the designer’s responsibility to educate and enforce honesty in the team. I’m not blaming the designers here because I know most of the time it’s not their personal decision of deceptive content design, but as designers, we need to know what’s wrong and what’s right. We can become the police of this process to prohibit dark patterns and help users navigate honestly.

Honesty is the best policy

I find it quite surprising that a big big problem that we face everyday in our life could have such a simple solution. It’s just one word and starts with an “h”. Yes, honesty. Just be honest with what you design, and what you’re trying to sell. It’s not that hard.

I was in Delhi in the spring of 2005. Along with my parents I had my cousin and we were there for a short vacation. We saw a street side vendor selling strawberries. Red, ripe and ready to be devoured into. It was so attractive that we, both teenagers, decided to buy half a kilo of it. Excited, we decided to go back to the hotel and wash them before eating, we did not check the box until reaching the hotel. Only after reaching the hotel, we realized that there were strawberries only in the top row and rest of the box was filled with cauliflower stem. We had been punked!

The stakes were very low for that street-side seller. He clearly knew we were from outside and we wouldn’t return to question him. He wouldn’t be selling the same thing there the next day so it doesn’t matter. He was there for quick money and had no accountability. Unfortunately, our services cannot be that guy. Users need to come back for us time and again for us to survive, so we cannot afford to cheat them. It may be easy for a gig, but that’s not how products are built.


So there is no alternative to honesty. Seriously, there isn’t. There are no shortcuts and and there is no handbook. It isn’t hard at all. Just be truthful about what you’re selling, and let users trust you.

It works like a charm.