Understanding the Difference Between Dark Patterns and Conversion Optimization

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Marjorie Munroe
Marjorie Munroe



Designers are the magicians of the modern world. Through subtle manipulation of color, word choice, and images, they can shape how website information is perceived and influence what choices are made.


But what happens when a website isn't created to help the user, and finding the right choice feels like a bunch of smoke and mirrors? Understanding the difference between conversion optimization and dark patterns can ensure you're staying helpful and human on your own website while avoiding the pitfalls that you may encounter on others.

What Is a Dark Pattern?

Coined by UX designer and consultant Harry Brignull in 2010, a dark pattern is defined as a feature of interface design crafted to trick users into doing things they might not want to do, but which benefit the business in question.

Sound familiar?

You've probably seen these kinds of tactics before: email footers making it nearly impossible to unsubscribe, or pop-ups trying to shame you into opting in. As Brignull lists on his site, there are many ways designers can misdirect a user into making a choice that doesn't align with their best interest.

According to Brignuli, they are effective because "[t]hey're carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind." 

So why do companies resort to using dark patterns on their websites? In short, dark patterns make it easy for a company to drive up conversion rates. The internet is a content-rich space. Every company is battling for each visitor's personal attention, information, and resources. Even larger corporations such as Apple, Amazon, and LinkedIn are guilty of making these types of design choices. 

But as Youtuber Nerdwriter1 notes, "there is a difference between those who are taking the time to build trust and loyalty and the special offer you clicked that actually enrolled you in a monthly subscription." The design choices on your website clearly showcase the types of practices your company stands for. How do you want to be seen?

Check out Nerdwriter's breakdown of dark patterns below:


What Is Conversion Optimization?

Conversion optimization, also known as conversion rate optimization, is the process of testing hypotheses on elements of your site with the ultimate goal of increasing the percentage of visitors who take the desired action.

At first glance, this may seem similar to the process of creating a dark pattern. After all, they both focus on getting website visitors to take a desired action or reach a particular endpoint. So are all inbound marketers tricksters?

In short, no.

Much like lead flows, which evolved from the practices of outbound pop-ups, it boils down to intention.

The aim of conversion optimization is to progressively understand the preferences of your website visitors. This helps you start to cater your website content to best suit their needs and better solve for their problems moving forward. This is one of the best ways to ensure your visitors, leads, opportunities, and even customers are delighted as they continue to interact with your company over time.

Quick-win tactics will not help if there's an underlying issue with the way your website is designed to convert visitors. By implementing the process of conversion optimization, you'll start to learn more about your online audience.

The result?

You'll be setting your company up for success by sustainably increasing conversions over time.

Interested in learning more about putting conversion rate optimization into practice? Check out this lesson to get started today!

Start the HubSpot Contextual Marketing Certification course from HubSpot Academy.

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