Digital Patterns - a marketing perspective

Cross-disciplinary convergences show the importance of strategic design in building online experiences which can speak volumes about your company and drive-or totally blow up- sales and brand reputation. The takeaways from ExperienceMatters conference

Silvia Podestà
10 min readJun 26, 2017

1. Introduction: design patterns, UX strategy and why they are worth talking about.

Every time you scroll through a webpage, you come across digital patterns. Digital patterns are the output of user experience design, combined, most of cases, with a precise business strategy. In her pioneering work, Jamie Levy has defined this combination as UX strategy. We can roughly sum up the essence of UX strategy as the art of creating a unique digital interface, 1.which is easy to use and satisfies your users [=your potential customers] and 2. which has all the elements that you need to comply with a precise business objective.

A stellar user experience (UX) strategy is a means to achieving disruption in the marketplace through mental model innovation.[Jamie Levy]

Navigation tabs, image carousels, but also paywalls, tunnelling and rewards: many components, devices and tricks of an interface have the power not only to orientate users [and here we are talking about user interface design patterns] but also to drive their actions according to a purpose [this is the case of persuasive design patterns].

The examples refer to two different kinds of design elements on a typical webpage. In 1 (Google) we see the autocomplete function, which is particularly appreciated by users when performing search tasks and ambiguity-issues can arise, i.e. an item can be entered in multiple ways, or can be mistyped. In this case, the goal of this element is to assist users in carrying out a specific task. In 2, we see two different pages within Amazon’s purchase and check-out process. The first one [upper half] still features promotional offers, the navigation bar and all usual website elements. By clicking on the checkout CTA users are redirected to a barren page [lower half], stripped of all distracting elements , which focuses user’s attention on one specific task at a time, like typing in their delivery address. [Source]

This perspective highlights how much design and marketing can be pooled in one big ecosystem, glued together by strategic design, which has been the main theme of discussion at the conference Experience Matters. The conference presented the results of a meaty research on users’ behaviour online and on navigational obstacles/dark patterns in digital design, with a special focus on the reflections of the latter on brand performances and success; it was carried on Italian e-shoppers by a reserach team from Politecnico di Milano together with web agency Great Pixel and marketing research company Personalive.

2. Heavy shoppers. A segmentation study on a profitable cluster

Heavy shoppers’ purchase behaviour and their reactions to dark patterns where debated at the Conference ExperienceMatters, recently held by Politecnico di Milano

Look at the history of marketing and you’ll find at one point the limelight started to shine down on the concept of experience. It is 1998 and Pine and Gilmore are coming up with their famous model, which describes the beginning of the experience economy era, the last — at that time- chapter in the progression of economic value, after the agrarian, industrial and service economies.

An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event. Commodities are fungible, goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable. [Harvard Business Review, July-August 1998]

For the first time, a concept so much intertwined with design practice was transferred to marketing.

The four dimensions of the experience economy — Pine and Gilmore model

Today the issue of experience is multifaceted, but generally speaking it’s about providing users/customers with a memorable occasion of engagement, in order to get something from them, be it an action, like a purchase, or a feeling, like their increased loyalty towards a brand. This applies to both offline and online situations and it becomes so very relevant when it comes to digital shopping experiences. Today we are seeing a growing awareness in retail of the need of multichannel strategies and initiatives to intercept an ubiquitous audience. Nonetheless, with more and more people buying online, digital experiences need to be extra well designed.

The research carried out by the Experience Design Academy at Politecnico di Milano with Great Pixel and Personalive focused on the so called heavy shoppers: those 12,5 million consumers who buy online at least once a week, out of a total number of 20 million Italian e-shoppers.

By virtue of their relevant spending power heavy shoppers are indeed a profitable segment, so no wonder e-retailers are trying so hard to get their loyalty. At the same time, the customer journey of these people is sprinkled with many online touchpoints, though always within the boundary of a multichannel dimension.

Heavy shoppers are rising the bar for companies who want to capture and retain them through unforgettable online experiences.Their customer journey is in fact multichannel, but it shows many online touchpoints, so that companies are facing the challenge of orchestrating all of them to acquire and retain such profitable users.[Andrea Boaretto, Professor of Multichannel Marketing @ MIP Politecnico di Milano.]

That’s why such users are rising the bar for companies adamant to capture and retain them through unforgettable online experiences. The research has allowed to segment this wider audience into 4 basic profiles, according to:

  • shopping and consumer behaviour;
  • their reaction to common obstacles to navigation and popular dark patterns that these users may find on digital interfaces. [See below a selection of obstacles considered]

Heavy shoppers: 4 profiles

The categories of users identified have been mapped on a two-axis scenario matrix [see below], which intersected two fundamental research parameters: the personal inclination towards online channels on one hand, and the search for economic value on the other.

Profile 1: Unprepared

Buying mostly into: books, travels, tech goods || Preferred purchase process: offline + desktop ||Drivers to purchase: opportunity to compare product choice || Preferred payment methods: credit card, avoiding to save credentials.

Profile 2: Opportunists

Buying mostly into: jewellery, childhood products || Preferred purchase process: totally multichannel || Drivers to purchase: affordability and promotions || Preferred payment methods: credit or debit card, paypal.

Profile 3: Tolerants

Buying mostly into: jewellery, weekly grocery shopping || Preferred purchase process: online || Drivers to purchase: relax, convenience || Preferred payment methods: credit or debit card, paypal, registering credentials.

Profile 4: Indifferent

Buying mostly into: weekly grocery shopping || Preferred purchase process: online || Drivers to purchase: relax, convenience, habit || Preferred payment methods: prepaid cards, registering credentials on trusted websites.

The yellow area stands for the social dimension of the shopping experience, which is enhanced online, as consumers are exposed to more [digital] interactions with other users, in the form of reviews, testimonials, comments or posts on social media.

3.Digital dark patterns: a risk analysis

An important part of the research has been dedicated to study the impact of so called digital dark patterns on users’ retention, online sale performances [short term] and brand reputation and trustworthiness [long term]. Before starting, a definition of the term feels appropriate.

A dark pattern is a user interface carefully designed to persuade or to trick users into doing specific actions unwittingly. Oftentimes, dark patterns drive users into doing things they might not otherwise do.

The above definition pinpoints the potentially deceptive nature of dark patterns. Although the adjective “dark” hints more to the fact that the underlying mechanisms of these interfaces are meant to be concealed to users, [rather than indicate their evilness, as it occurs in the definition of “dark web”], in this kind of interface the boundary between persuasion and deception looks quite subtle. Whatever the intention, a dark pattern is never a mistake, but a deliberate initiative put in place during the design phase and aimed at sorting a desired action.

Above: Deceptive use of positioning and wording of a feature disabling option in Apple’s IOS6. [Source: The]

One example, from Harry Brignull, UX designer and expert in cognitive sciences. At the time of its release, Apple’s iOS 6 contained a new, tough not widely publicized feature, the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) ad tracking. It basically assigned each device a unique identifier which tracked users’ browsing activity. So basically, a feature conceived to gather useful information for advertisers interested in targeting their ads to specific users. Of course, the company provided the interface with a toggle to disable the feature. However this option wasn’t positioned in the privacy settings, as many users would have expected. To reach the option, users should have gone through the following path: General Menu>>About>>Advertising. So a deliberately deceptive positioning, paired with a semantic trick: the option “limit ad tracking” set on OFF could easily be mistaken by users for “ad tracking: OFF”. The use of a double negative helped confuse Iphone users, who would be hard-pressed to understand at first sight that OFF meant actually that the Ad Tracker was ON.

This is just one case within a widespread habit deeply rooted in persuasive marketing. Going back to our research, four particular dark patterns have been investigated. The analysis of heavy shoppers’ reactions to these patterns has been crucial in narrowing down the characteristics of each profile further.

Dark Pattern1: Opt out trick

Dark Pattern 1: Opt out trick.

We hardly read all the information on a webpage, used as we are to quickly skim texts, especially if font size is small. Hence we are unlikely to notice that, for example, some options are already flagged when we subscribe to a service. There are many cases of brands who regularly leverage on this trick to opt people in for a specific additional service, while making things difficult for the same users when they try to opt out.

Dark Pattern 2: Forced Continuity

Dark Pattern 2: Forced Continuity

This is the case when when your free trial automatically and silently converts into a paid membership at the end of the free period.

Basically the payment method associated during registration silently starts getting charged without any warning.

Dark pattern 3: Fast forward trick

Dark Pattern 3: Fast forward trick

An element, with a layout identical to another, is assigned a different action at one point of the process.

This happens usually within a series of UI components which are displayed in sequence, like a series of buttons, which users are very likely to press quickly, without pausing to carefully read the umpteenth CTA - wrongly believing it will be the same as the previous one.

Dark Pattern 4: Sneak-into basket

Dark Pattern 4: Sneak into-basket

Another very common trick which consist in placing unwanted items into users’ baskets during check out.

What usually happens here is that the site sneaks an additional item often through the use of an opt-out radio button or checkbox on a prior page.

How are users reacting to these patterns? It’s interesting to consider heavy shoppers’ page/transaction dropping out rates for each of the tricks considered above.

1.Opt-out trick.

How many are tricked: 1 out of 10 users.

Impact on retention and transactions: 28% of surveyed users pissed off, never to come back on the website again; 45% annoyed and took extra care when accessing on the site the following time; 20% indifferent; 7% annoyed, but considered it normal.

Impact on brand reputation: strongly worsened=23%; slightly worsened =48% of surveyed users.

2.Forced continuity

How many are tricked: 10% ofusers

Impact on retention and transactions: users who realised and abandoned the transaction/interaction= 53%; users who realised and intended to de-activate forced option later=37%.

Impact on brand reputation: strongly worsened=23%; slightly worsened =48% of surveyed users.

3.Fast forward trick

How many are tricked: 2 out of 10 users

Impact on retention and transactions: users who realised and abandoned navigation on the site= 45%; users who realised and went on navigating, without paying=29%.

Impact on brand reputation: strongly worsened=23%; slightly worsened =48% of surveyed users.

4.Sneak into basket

How many are tricked: 2% of users

Impact on retention and transactions: users who realised deselected unwanted items and proceeded with payment= 58%; users who realised and interrupted payment=24%.

Impact on brand reputation: strongly worsened=31%; slightly worsened =45% of surveyed users.

The results are crystal clear in indicating that users in the study are for the most part aware of the occurrence of these tricks, which most times result in loss of trust and brand reputation, and often in transaction/page abandons. So the question is: are these persuasive (or deceptive if you like) efforts really worth it?

4.Not just about ethics: bad design is simply not right for your brand

Credits: JLS Photography — Alaska

The following one has been probably the biggest lesson from this research: giving up to a deceitful UX strategy on your sites and interfaces can help your brand avoid the risk of users dropping-out your page and of your brand reputation being nastily tarnished. It’s about securing the trust of your customers and prospects, to boost trust and confidence and back sales up in the long run.

Good UX and honest strategy are not just about ethics. Bad design impacts brands both in the short and in the long run.

Netflix for example tells us his success story of gifting users the chance to opt out the service, the attention this brand praises to its audience proved by the claim on their homepage header. Consistency must be pursued between a brand’s values and the things the company does -not only tell- to make these values tangible.

Conclusion. The opportunity of a design-driven brand ecosystem

Another takeaway is more connected to the potential of strategic design in keeping together different components of the brand-identity process and help brands navigate the changes without leaving their customers behind.

Simply put, design is a method of problem solving. Whether it is an architectural blueprint, a brochure, the signage system at an airport, a chair, or a better way to streamline production on the factory floor — design helps solve a problem. (The Design Management Institute)

Much has been written lately about the strategic value that design can add to organizations of any scale and type.

Source: Design Management Institute 2016

From Apple to IBM to Steelcase: the above data show how in ten years from 2005 to 2015, design-led companies have maintained significant stock market advantage, outperforming the S&P by 211%.

A strong clue that design, a s a method and approach, isn’t just about producing beautiful objects. It’s about being relevant for your market and drive meaningful results.