Recent analysis has suggested that a number of retail brands are using so-called ‘dark’ user experience methods to boost sales, for example, data collection before checkout, countdowns and confusing sign up messages to subscription services. Whilst all of these methods might sound unpleasant, they can be used in a way which benefits customers, and only become ‘dark’ when they’re used unethically. The key is to ensure transparency with everything your brand does online, so that a customer knows where their data will be captured, how it will be used and what to expect in any communication from you. Below is a summary of the so-called ‘dark’ methods, and how you can use them ethically.

The countdown

Some suggest this creates unnecessary urgency and tries to encourage ‘panic’ buying, but where there is a genuinely limited supply of a product, countdowns are a helpful tool. They enable the customer get their hands on something they really want or need, before it sells out. Of course, some brands do use countdowns to create a false sense of urgency to drive up sales in the short term, and this is a big mistake. Although there may be a temporary uplift, it has a significant negative impact on brand advocacy.

Confusing sign-up messages

These are also pulled up for scrutiny and often accused of tricking people into subscriptions using dark methods. Again, there are ways of encouraging sign up which are unethical but there are also many ways to get it right. Customers have to understand what they’re buying into. Try to put your sign- up messages into the plainest language using as few words as possible with no ambiguity. If you don’t, you risk subscription blindness, and customers will probably opt out after the trial period or not sign up in the first place.

Abandoned cart emails

If a customer is in the middle of filling a form out or buying something online, and they get distracted but have filled in their email address, it isn’t against data protection rules for the company in question to email them once to invite them back to the form they were in the process of completing, provided they only do it once and they don't use that email contact as promotional in nature. Although it’s not breaking any rules, it’s better to not bury your intentions in the small print and to make that follow-up email genuinely relevant and useful, rather than pushy and mistargeted. A reminder of what was in their basket is fine but trying to up-sell numerous related items is likely to be a turn-off. If they abandoned a sign- up process, sending a reminder email with a link to the point at which they logged off with short tips on how to complete the process is good, but using overtly persuasive language about the things they will be missing out on if they don’t sign up immediately, isn’t.

Inciting choice paralysis

It’s great if your company has a huge selection of products that you want to showcase, but many brands get it wrong when they try to tempt customers with a million different offers or products in the hope that one or two will convert. Whilst we all appreciate a good deal, or indeed having a broad product range to choose from, sometimes it’s just too much and a customer wants to be helpfully directed towards what they might want or need. Again, there is a fine line between the so-called ‘dark’ approach to this and the right way to do it. Many brands could be unintentionally inciting choice paralysis without necessarily having unethical intentions, simply because they have a very poorly designed online customer journey. Either way, it’s important to keep simplicity at the forefront and making any up-selling as relevant and targeted as possible.

Avoiding ‘Dark UX’

There are a number of ways to boost spend ethically. As well as ensuring the application of things like abandoned cart emails and countdowns is done correctly as outlined above, you should also conduct proper conversion optimisation. We work with our clients to take a user experience and process it looking at lots of levels of data, examining whether there are any technical reasons why customers aren’t converting or seem unable to complete a specific task. Making sure a site is optimised for the myriad of devices out there is essential, and this can only be done by digging deep into google analytics and doing full technical testing, which is time-consuming but worthwhile, as it unlocks rich seams of customers to convert.

For brands , avoiding being accused of ‘Dark UX’ is all about understanding the psychology of their customers and using it to their advantage – but in a way which is mutually beneficial and results in the customer being delighted with their purchase. If you’re trying to push something the customer doesn’t want, whichever method you’re using, that’s unethical.


By Luke Battye, strategy director at CAB Studios

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