Chapter 7: Exploiting expectations

Everyone has expectations of websites and apps. Helpful designers play into those expectations by employing guidelines, user-centred patterns and design systems to make sure their products are consistent and predictable, so users don’t have to relearn how to use the product every time they do something new.1

In a 2016 study, researchers Nikolaus and Bonhert gave 135 participants a grid and asked them to specify the expected location of common website elements like the logo, search and advertisements.2 They compared the aggregated user expectations against fifty real website layouts. In the figure below, you can see how users generally expected the search feature to be near the top right of the page, while the real position of the search feature was also generally at the top right. This just goes to show that users usually know what to expect, and that designers usually know that it’s helpful to support those expectations.

Two diagrams showing where on a web page people expect a website’s search function to be placed. On the left, user expectation places search functionality hotspots mostly in the top right; on the right, research confirms that search functionality is most likely to be placed in the top right.
User expectation of the position of the search feature on websites (left) and real position of search (right). From Nikolaus and Bonhert, 2016.

An exploitative designer can take their knowledge of user expectations and treat it as a weakness to be exploited for profit. The most famous example of this is probably from the game Flappy Bird that soared to the top of the iOS app store rankings out of nowhere in 2013. At the time, the app store ranking algorithm boosted games to the top if they had frequent positive reviews, among other factors. The game involved a compelling loop of dying and retrying levels, and it employed a trivially simple deceptive pattern to generate...

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Since 2010, Harry Brignull has dedicated his career to understanding and exposing the techniques that are employed to exploit users online, known as “deceptive patterns” or “dark patterns”. He is credited with coining a number of the terms that are now popularly used in this research area, and is the founder of the website He has worked as an expert witness on a number of cases, including Nichols v. Noom Inc. ($56 million settlement), and FTC v. Publishers Clearing House LLC ($18.5 million settlement). Harry is also an accomplished user experience practitioner, having worked for organisations that include Smart Pension, Spotify, Pearson, HMRC, and the Telegraph newspaper.