Photo by Dan Asaki on Unsplash

Welcome to the Roach Motel

A common Dark UX Pattern that’s easy to check into, but hard to escape.

It all started with registering for a Homecoming 5K Marathon at my alma mater. What I thought was going to be a fun experience turned into a nightmare. It took me three years to catch this unrecognizable charge in my bank account. I looked up the company online and came to a forum where people had the same concern as I did with the same business. We didn’t know we signed up for this reward points system yearly subscription. It turns out, when I registered for the marathon, there was an option for a free seven-day trial (before the subscription was activated) already checked off for me. After reading customer’s reviews on an online forum, I gathered the information from the most common emotions that appeared in their testimonies:

  • Confused
  • Deceived
  • Annoyed
  • Furious

For the best experience when it comes to your audience is to create ways to avoid these negative emotions. Even though these are uncontrollable for any company doesn’t mean that people didn’t feel them. Two years ago, I contacted the company with emails and a phone call telling them to cancel my subscription and close my account. They said they did, however, that was a lie. A year ago, they tried to bill me once again. My bank recognized this and alerted me if this was a fraud situation. To my surprise, the company kept billing me even stating that they canceled it. To decline it for good, I had to get a brand-new card and let my bank do all the investigating. This is an example of a Roach Motel. I prefer to be at the Rosebud Motel.

Image Source

A major characteristic of Roach Motels is that it’s easy to get into, but hard to get out of. It’s a maze that doesn’t have an exit.¹ It’s designed to keep you in. Finding the exit is difficult. The subscription option wasn’t visible enough for me to catch. I didn’t see it because it was meant not to be seen. It was there next to the terms and conditions that everyone tends to skip in a heartbeat.

If Dark UX Patterns were a GIF

“In a nutshell, dark UX takes everything we ever learned about the psychology of human-centered design and uses it against the user.” — Emily Stevens²

Why do dark UX patterns exist?

Deceptive user interfaces are everywhere, not just online. Negative-option billing is the earliest deceptive offline pattern around 1927. This was for a book club billing their members without their acknowledgment.³ To be clear designers are doing their job as instructed. However, they are responsible for what they create. Brownlee explains this in-depth, “Many designers, and possibly even most, hate using dark patterns in their work, but they are forced to implement them by managers.⁴” Whatever the company’s main goal is ends up being a short-term goal that isn’t long-term.⁵

“I’ve said before that Dark Patterns often harm business, but many companies still use them. Why? Well, probably to aggressively promote services that aren’t attractive enough to keep users engaged.” — Agnieszka Cieplińska

If brands continue to depend on dark UX patterns there will be competitors who use ethical design approaches that will attract the target audience to their brand.

“The roach motel aspect of this design becomes apparent if you realize too late that you’ve purchased the subscription.” — Harry Brignull¹

How to recognize a Roach Motel

It appears at a sign-up window, registration form, any subscription screen, etc. Any time when you are creating an account. More than one dark pattern can be involved. In my case, Forced Continuity⁷ was added into this mess. Even the customer service stayed on-brand by forcing me to continue the service. I didn’t know it was in a marathon that gave me a run for my money.

An ethical approach to this type of dark pattern

Transparency⁸ is a great alternative to let users be aware of what is going on. Here are four great alternatives to use by humanebydesign.com when it comes to ethical design:

Image Source: Humane By Design
Image Source: Humane By Design
Image Source: Humane By Design
Image Source: Humane By Design

These approaches can help prevent your users from being tricked by giving them these transparent options. By letting users have control of their experience with your design empowers them. Thus, creating trust in your brand. Trust creates a positive and powerful impact when interacting with any product, service, and experience.

Key Takeaway: No one likes to be tricked

When Dark UX Patterns are used

Here’s what you can do to avoid Dark UX Patterns

  • Advocate for your users with stakeholders
  • Be aware of the company’s goals
  • Design for Good
  • Have empathy for your users
  • Speak up and call out companies

The Roach Motel is one common type of Dark UX Pattern that millions of people are trapped in. No one likes to be tricked into something they were forced to sign up for. That’s bad business. You can learn about other dark UX patterns at darkuxpatterns.org.

When Dark UX Patterns are not used

[1]: Brignull, Harry. Dark Patterns. https://www.darkpatterns.org/

[2]: Stevens, Emily. (Feb. 25 2018). Sinister UX: How to Recognize and Avoid Dark UX Patterns. https://uxplanet.org/sinister-ux-how-to-recognize-and-avoid-dark-ux-patterns-95acdb15767f

[3]: Grauer, Yael. (July 28 2016). Dark Patterns are designed to trick you (and they’re all over the Web). https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2016/07/dark-patterns-are-designed-to-trick-you-and-theyre-all-over-the-web/

[4]: Brownlee, John. (Aug. 22 2016 ). Why Dark Patterns Won’t Go Away. https://www.fastcompany.com/3060553/why-dark-patterns-wont-go-away

[5]: Ravencraft, Eric. (July 29 2020). How to Spot — and Avoid — Dark Patterns on the Web. https://www.wired.com/story/how-to-spot-avoid-dark-patterns/

[6]: Cieplińska, Agnieszka. (April 3 2019). 5 Common UX Dark Patterns — Interfaces Designed To Trick You! https://medium.com/beautiful-code-smart-design-by-10clouds/5-common-ux-dark-patterns-interfaces-designed-to-trick-you-61fdede9718c

[7]: https://uxdesign.cc/dark-patterns-in-ux-design-7009a83b233c

[8]: Human By Design. Transparent. https://humanebydesign.com/

Graduate Student at Columbia College Chicago | UX Designer 👩🏻‍💻 | IL📍

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