Beyond a mere source of entertainment, the video-sharing social media app TikTok has become a hub for quick educational videos, as users turn its 60-second video format into an opportunity to share interesting and informative lessons. User experience (UX) designer Mary Formanek (@UXWithMary) has become a viral TikTok influencer in this regard, in particular for her series of TikTok explainer videos breaking down politicians’ campaign websites for laypersons who may not know a lot about design.
One recent series of Formanek’s videos that blew up featured her explaining the design principles behind Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign website. In these TikTok videos, Formanek describes how Trump’s campaign uses design principles in a shady way, to manipulate users into getting trapped on donation pages and accidentally donating more money than they might intend. As Formanek explains, this practice — of using design psychology to obfuscate and manipulate rather than illuminate — is known as “dark UX” within the field.
For those unfamiliar, UX — short for user experience — is the general term to refer to the interaction that a user has with a website or product. A UX designer or their team will be tasked with building an easy, efficient and smooth experience for the user.
While UX designers are trained to be on the side of the user, there are ways that the user experience can be manipulated to be in favor of the “product” — in this case, a candidate. When it comes to Trump’s re-election campaign website, this translates into an unscrupulous, even ill-intentioned user experience. Formanek broke down how this worked in an interview with Salon; as always, this interview has been edited for clarity and length.
First, what is dark UX?
It’s pretty much any sort of pattern or practice [of design] that will cause a deceitful effect. It will trick the user into doing something that they don’t want to do, or not even tell the user that they are doing this action.
What’s the history of dark UX? Is this a new thing?
I graduated recently, in 2016, and because UX is [such a] new [field] we don’t have a ton of education on it. I didn’t learn about dark UX patterns until I started doing my own research and came across a couple articles on it, and learned from there. The person who started the ideas of dark UX was Harry Brignull. He proposed [the term] “dark UX” I think in 2010, and pushed the concept from there, and said, “hey, look at these really-not-great things to do; we shouldn’t do these things and this is why they’re bad and shady.”
UX is supposed to be about people, and about the users, and about helping people. This is the exact opposite of what our profession is.
On TikTok, you have a series explaining how Trump’s re-election campaign website exemplifies dark UX. In one video, you show how the “donate” checkboxes are automatically clicked for a user, thus automatically consenting them to donate $1,000 monthly. Are there any legal ramifications for this, or is it an ethics violation?
I’m not a lawyer, but in the United States, very rarely have companies got into any legal trouble for doing [dark UX] patterns. One exception is LinkedIn. They did a dark UX pattern called “friends spam” — that’s pretty much where they ask you for your name or your email, and they said that they’re going to do something with it, but they just spam all your friends in your contact list without your knowledge. They were sued for $13 million in 2015 for that.
Another example of a dark UX pattern on Trump’s website is how Trump might be taking advantage of people who are visually impaired. Can you talk more about that?
There are disabilities out there that prevent people from interacting with websites the way that most of us do. Whether they’re blind or they have issues with color contrast or they’re colorblind, they don’t see things the way they’re intended to. So imagine a button would blend into the background, and it wouldn’t make sense at that point [to someone who was visually impaired]. They will often use screen readers, or they will change the website into all text so that they read it like a book. There have been some other TikTok videos of people that are 100% blind going through with a screen reader; there was a popular one about the Starbucks app where she was going through and choosing her drink.
Usually these screen readers go very fast, and it’s how they navigate the site. And so, when I went through Trump’s re-election campaign website with a screen reader, it was confusing.
I will say in my video I did use a screen reader technique that is not normal, because usually you use a keyboard — you don’t use a mouse to hover over things. However, when I was hovering over different states they were not showing the information that was being shown on the screen. So there were things specifically left out, like that things were checked, or what the total was that you were donating. They were broken up into different individual words, so it was like “$100,” “plus,” and then “$50”; it wasn’t “$150.” So that could be considered deceitful — the checkboxes [for money] being checked, without ever telling that person that they are checked, is also deceitful. It just read like you were reading a book, not like you were [being] given options.
And then the other thing that I thought was interesting, in that sort of usability study, was that a donation button was right above the total. So, if you were going through and you’d had your eyes closed, you would click that donation button before even hearing the total, which was not a great practice either.
As you explained, Trump’s website also has a pop-up that you can’t click out of on the landing page, and you’re forced to go straight to the donation page. There’s a clear lack of choice for the user to browse around. What do you make of that? Is this a common practice?
It’s not common for websites raising money. It is common to have pop-ups and gray out the background, but not to get the user trapped. There usually needs to be a clear indicator that you can get out of that area, whether it’s a cancel or it’s an “X” in the top corner, there has to be some sort of indication that that user can get out. On Trump’s website, and on the example that I was giving you could click out by clicking the gray area.
However, when I user-test things, I test as if I’m my grandmother. If you were to click around somewhere and try to interact with something, it would go away. And I think that’s how they kind of get away with it. But without an “X” or a clear indication [as to how to close that window], then it’s a dark UX pattern, because you are not making it clear to the user that you can leave.
Can you share a little bit about how psychology plays a role in UX and dark UX?
Psychology is huge in our profession. There are about three elements that we really focus on in UX design: research, data, and psychology. Because we are constantly working with people — we’re making systems for people — psychology is one of the key things that we focus on. We look into psychology a lot when we’re doing user testing, when we’re wondering why people aren’t hitting the button that we thought would be super clear when we designed it.
And what do we know about Trump’s website and the psychology behind the design? You call Trump’s website “psychology overload.”
Red [colors], it elevates your heart rate, and it brings attention to it. . . . and if you put black in the background it also gives this very dark perception, and then the red pops out at you. It’s just screaming at you. And that not only elevates your heart rate, but it grabs your attention. From there you’re already kind of stressed. And that’s something that we learn from psychology, so we take that into effect.
Red is also used a lot in restaurants like McDonald’s and fast food, because it also makes people hungry, whereas gyms will use the color blue because it makes people have more energy. And it’s really complicated science, but on Trump’s website, there’s a lot of psychology verbiage. There’s the countdown clock that really puts you into a state that makes you feel uncomfortable. Or capitalizing “you” and “now” on Trump’s website.
What’s the difference between bad design and dark UX?
So bad design and dark UX can be deciphered by intent. If they are doing something intentional, that is considered dark. If you’re doing something on accident, it’s considered bad, and that’s strictly by definition.
Obviously you can’t speak for the design firm who designed Trump’s re-election website, but as a professional UX designer, do you believe that perhaps these designers knew very well what they were doing, psychologically, to manipulate visitors? Or is it possible that it could just be bad UX design?
Yeah, I think it’s a little bit of both, and a third party idea on top of that. I’m currently making a new dark UX video on who to blame.
In my experience, I have found that the blame can be placed on three parties: either the UX designers themselves, the business segment, or whoever is managing the UX team or the marketing team. And the marketing team, I say that because they are focused on revenue and trying to get as many ad spots into places and email sign-ups and all of that.
I put a little bit of blame on the UX team because they probably understand that this is not right. And there is an ethics code that we do have to follow because again we are on the side of the users. We are trying to help people. It is not our job to do bad things. But if the business side is telling us you have to do this thing or you’re going to get fired, they’re going to do that thing and they’re going to know it’s dark UX. There are people that know that these are dark UX patterns, but they don’t care, and they just want the ROI on what they are doing.