Balancing user frustration with results

Finding the balance between user frustration and results can be a source of conflict in many businesses. It’s often much more profitable to confuse users with dark patterns than it is to be upfront, honest, and clear about your offer. This is particularly relevant to conversion optimization because of the focus on measurable results. We can easily measure sales and conversions. Unfortunately, it isn’t very easy to measure customer frustration and the long-term cost of using dark patterns to increase conversion rates.

Exhibit #1 – Entry ads

First up, the (in)famous Forbes interstitial ad on entry:


Here we see the result of a problem many media companies are facing, plummeting ad rates and subscribers. This forces media companies to tilt the scale away from a great user experience towards revenue.

“We’ve done the cost-benefit analysis on revenue from the ‘welcome’ ad vs the bounce rate from the site for users… It’s still in favor of running the ad.”

– Forbes Managing Editor, Bruce Upbin

The bounce rate tells us what users are doing now, but what about all the users who eventually got fed up with it and never came back? The welcome ad feature was so frustrating to users that many turned to adblocking software to avoid it. Then, Forbes fired back and blocked users who were blocking their ads. Then, users created ways of avoiding the adblock blocking measures. And around and around we go.

It’s clear the users and Forbes are at odds with each other. How do we measure the (likely very negative) impact over the long term of the welcome ad?

Exhibit #2 – Modal ads

Here’s another example, this time it’s a method, not a particular company. How about these modal ads?

The web has been inundated with these types of ads. Modal windows that pop up on entry, when you leave,  when you scroll past 50% of the page, after 5 seconds, slide up from the bottom, take over the whole screen, and on and on. Often users encounter multiple versions of these all on the same page.

There’s no doubt these modals increase conversion in the short-term, but how many users do they drive away? How many emails captured aren’t real? Are the emails captured worth the same as other emails?

There is no simple answer

There is no easy way to measure user frustration and subsequently measure the impact of dark patterns over the long term. Our best approach is to establish firm marketing guidelines which exclude certain behaviors and techniques, continually poll users for feedback, and keep a pulse on the norms and current state of the industry.

Marketing guidelines – Establish guidelines and revisit them every quarter. Outline which strategies and methods are acceptable and which ones aren’t. It’s key to be specific here as well, for example, “We don’t send more than 1 email per week to our customers”. 

Polling users for feedback – Many companies are already doing this, too many aren’t. But most aren’t using the data in the right way. It’s helpful to ask users what they think about pages or the website in general. It’s better to link those responses to conversion optimization tests, traffic sources, and past user behavior. If you’re running an A/B test, link polling feedback to individual variations to help get the entire picture of variation performance, both qualitative and quantitative.

Current state of industry – What was annoying two years ago is now considered acceptable by the general public. What’s unacceptable today, wasn’t just a few years ago. It’s important to have a finger on the pulse of the industry you’re in to understand what is and isn’t considered acceptable by users and considered standard operating procedure.