Have you ever tried to buy something online, but found yourself being rushed by a timer in the corner? The process of finding your desired item may have been a peaceful one, but now you’re feeling pressured to make the purchase within a certain amount of time. While most users may feel a little agitated by this, for people with anxiety and panic disorders, timers can be paralyzing. Many user interfaces are loaded with triggers that make users’ experiences extremely difficult and distressing.
How do user interfaces trigger anxiety and panic disorders?
While the pressure of timers on a website is one example of a possible trigger for someone with anxiety, there are numerous characteristics that can negatively affect users. Anxiety disorders are mental health disorders that are categorized by feelings of fear and worry and can be incredibly difficult to manage. Not to be confused with general anxiety, anxiety disorders are intense, ongoing, and commonly interfere with a person’s day-to-day life.
Some common anxiety disorders are:
- Social anxiety disorder: causes irrational anxiety, fear of humiliation or embarrassment, of being judged in a social setting.
- Phobia disorders: persistent and excessive fear of an object or situation
- Panic disorders: characterized by sudden attacks of uncontrollable fear and panic
Today, triggers come in the form of dark patterns, tactics used to distract and lead users to what the company wants them to see. Intrusive advertisements and patterns disrupt and alarm users, and by doing so, provoke uncontrollable panic and fear.
What are dark patterns?
Dark patterns are essentially user interfaces designed to trick users into doing things they do not want to do. With the ability to manipulate and coerce, dark patterns lead users to making certain choices that benefit the site while continuing interaction. According to darkpatterns.org, there are multiple kinds of dark patterns:
- Trick questions: Typically found when trying to unsubscribe from something, trick questions confuse and irritate users with complicated questioning like: “Mark only the boxes for emails you do not want to receive.”
- Sneak into basket: When attempting to purchase something, users find another item in their basket that they did not click on. This can go unnoticeable and results in purchasing something that was not chosen by the user.
- Roach motel: Finding ease with creating an account, signing up for a subscription, etc., but finding great difficulty getting out of said account or subscription.
- Privacy Zuckering: Named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, “privacy suckering” involves tricking users into sharing private information publicly. This is achieved by employing confusing language and jargon users may not understand.
- Price comparison prevention: Retailer or site makes it hard to compare price items, making users unable to make informed decisions.
- Misdirection: Specific designs focus user attention on one thing to distract from another.
- Hidden costs: In the last step of the checkout process, unexpected charges appear. Example: delivery and tax charges.
- Bait and switch: Users intend to do one thing, but something unwanted happens instead. Bait and switch is also a common tactic used in sales. Example: offering a desirable product and then asking to complete a signup process. Leading the user through actions for one thing when something entirely different happens as the result.
- Disguised ads: Advertisements that are disguised as other kinds of content or navigation.
- Forced continuity: Free trial ends and the user is never notified that it has ended. Charges begin on credit card without any warning and it may be difficult to cancel the membership.
- Friend spam: Product or site asks for your email or social media permissions, giving users the assumptions it will be used for an outcome such as finding friends. Instead, it spams your contacts with messages claiming to be from you.
- Confirmshaming: Guilting the user into signing or opting into something. The “decline” option is worded to shame the user into compliance.
Themes that trigger anxiety and panic in users
In his article “A Web of Anxiety”, David Swallow found several people with anxiety and panic disorders and asked them what themes of user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) designs trigger or add to anxious feelings and panic. Four main aspects were mentioned: urgency, unpredictability, powerlessness, and sensationalism.
Urging the user to make decisions within a certain amount of time causes intense, frantic, and anxious feelings in users. Persuasive notifications, time-limited transactions, and countdown of “next episodes” are all examples of things that can cause panic and feelings of pressure in users with anxiety and panic disorders. Persistent messaging is another example of urgency, as it has the ability to create an “attack of communication” on a person, as David Swallow mentions.
Unpredictable situations can give anyone anxiety, but for those with anxiety and panic disorders, unnecessary apprehension and stress overwhelm and makes using certain sites a stressful experience. Unpredictable situations includes:
- Deciphering trick questions
- Wondering if you will be given the opportunity to review your order before you confirm it
- Liking someone’s post on accident or seeing read receipts (a major trigger for those with social anxiety, as it results in obsessing over whether or not a message will be seen as a misinterpretation)
With the constant urgency and unpredictability of many sites, users can gain a sense of powerlessness and distrust. When key information is hidden and dark patterns like bait and switch, misdirection and roach motel are employed, users with anxiety and panic disorders are prone to feel helpless and uncomfortable with interactivity.
Many users have stated they feel powerlessness the most with target advertising. When users allow certain sites to use their information to “improve their browsing experience”, they unknowingly allow for their browsing and navigation to be tracked. Over the last year, concerns with privacy and internet advertisements have grown resulting in attempted changes being made, though whether or not new “changes” will be effective is still in question. Once tracked, users found advertisements related to what they were searching to be intrusive and taking away of their private actions. With this intrusiveness, countless anxiety attacks are prone to happen.
In the age of “fake news” and “media sensationalism”, people with serious social anxiety and phobias are put into unprecedented panic and paranoia. With sensationalism, information is deliberately distorted to push certain agendas that can range from political to business-generating. Misinforming and careless content by journalists, content creators, and designers not only risks the reputation and reliability of the media they report for but can also create serious harm for those with anxiety or phobias surrounding current issues, such as health anxiety.
For example, misinformation surrounding the coronavirus has proved to be extremely problematic. Any exposure and belief in misinformation related to the disease, such as conspiracy theories, bring to life any health phobias a person with an anxiety disorder may have. Recent research surrounding COVID19 misinformation has found the belief and circulation of that misinformation has resulted in “lower vaccination intentions, lower levels of trust in governmental health institutions, and less willingness to follow restrictive measures to curtail further propagation of the disease.”
Combating anxiety triggers in UI and UX
Implementing new data privacy practices and protesting and working to outlaw dark patterns are great starts but unfortunately, the dark pattern market is just too profitable.
“The truth is: many companies care little about how anxious or stressed their websites make you feel. In fact, companies may well be counting on your being anxious.”David Swallow, A web of anxiety
Despite the alarming rate of use, focusing on improving accessibility for those with anxiety and panic disorders can diminish the use of black patterns.
Designing for users with anxiety disorders
- Providing comparable experience
- Considering situations
- Being consistent
- Giving control
- Prioritizing content
- Adding value
In order to combat the dark patterns found in themes of urgency, unpredictability, powelessness, and sensationalism, user interface designers should:
Remove Time Limits
Give users a peaceful experience by providing them with enough time to comfortably do what they want. Rushing users has not only proven to be ineffective, but it also creates a bad relationship between the user and site.
- Allow users to disable or adjust timers
- Remove timers all together
- Allow users to change or remove any irritating sounds, such as message alerts
Give Clear Expectations
User interfaces must have clear and consistent identification, navigation, and understanding. Too much information, unclear questions, and misleading actions create unnecessary discomfort and anxiety.
Ways to combat unpredictability include:
- Explaining important information in an exact way
- Labeling instructions
- Identifying reasoning behind desired inputs
- Encouraging clarity in forms
- Providing consistency through patterns and familiar conventions
Anything that prevents users from performing the desired task is friction. Powerlessness feelings are created when users are unable to complete tasks such as unsubscribing from something or deactivating an account.
Companies can avoid confirmshaming and forced continuity by:
- Supporting users need to complete any desired service
- Providing easy access to company contact information
- Giving users control over their accounts and information
To combat sensationalism, developers, journalists, and content creators must be diligent in practicing balanced and responsible reporting of all current issues, but especially those related to health and medicine.
Users with anxiety and panic disorders are reassured when user interface designers:
- Stop using and report sites that employ dark patterns
- Raise awareness behind dark patterns
- Deliver and research accurate and reliable evidence-based information
While dark patterns can and do severely affect users with anxiety and panic disorders, everyone can become victims of the schemes that are so unfortunately common. Having an awareness of the tricks that create an unpleasant and anxiety-filled experience for users is essential to ensuring interface designers do not make the same mistakes. If anything, all users and creators can learn one thing from dark patterns: do not mess with your user. All users want to interact with a website that is clear, consistent, and accessible. Positive interface experiences happen when designers understand exactly what users with anxiety disorders (and those without) want and need… and avoiding the things that trouble and confuse them.
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“A Web of Anxiety: Accessibility for People with Anxiety and Panic Disorders [Part 1].” TPGi, 19 July 2021, https://www.tpgi.com/a-web-of-anxiety-accessibility-for-people-with-anxiety-and-panic-disorders-part-1/.
“A Web of Anxiety: Accessibility for People with Anxiety and Panic Disorders [Part 2].” TPGi, 19 July 2021, https://www.tpgi.com/a-web-of-anxiety-accessibility-for-people-with-anxiety-and-panic-disorders-part-2/.
Wintermeier, Nikole. “Dark Patterns Examples in Ecommerce: What They Are & Why to Avoid Them.” Crobox Blog, Crobox, 27 July 2021, https://blog.crobox.com/article/dark-patterns.