The Origin of Bait and SwitchBait and switch is actually a sales/retail tactic which is considered to border on fraud. Baiting and switching usually consists of offering customers a desirable item at an affordable price point which makes the offer seem like a good deal (the bait) but later turning the offer into a less desirable deal (thus switching) which the user is likely to take to minimize their perceived loss. There are several different ways to employ this tactic:
- advertising the product as something it is not such as making the product seem more attractive in the advertisement than it actually is or shipping a product of lower quality than the advertised product
- showing customers low prices on an item that is attractive to them, then claiming that the item is unavailable once they are hooked and trying to actually buy the item. Instead, customers are offered a similar (seemingly higher quality) item at a much higher price point
Generally baiting and switching works by offering customers items or services at attractive terms. Once they become so interested they enter a store, call a sales representative or complete a signup form to inquire about the offer they will be sold a more expensive product or service.
Usually, this is realized by the item offered only being available in a “limited number” and the store or service provider running out of this limited number. Another form of this tactic is also used in the sale of mortgages and car retailing/financing where only a very limited number of customers qualify for the most attractive rates (if any at all).
Customers usually accept the offer because taking the substitute good offered as an alternative is considered superior to the disappointment or inconvenience of acquiring no good at all. Most customers feel they already invested something such as time invested in enquiring for the offer and therefore are unwilling to leave without making a purchase. This practice becomes especially fraudulent if the original offer never existed, to begin with (this is actually illegal) or was so limited that hardly anybody could acquire it.
Bait and Switch as a dark UX pattern While according to Wikipedia the popular internet prank of rickrolling people can be considered a form of bait and switch, there are also other, more serious versions of online baiting and switching that are considered a dark pattern. The two most common versions are:
- Offering users of websites or online stores a desirable product and then forcing them to complete an unnecessarily long signup process. This process often asks for considerably more personal data than would be necessary for the completion of the transaction. After the form is filled, sometimes the offer is changed, sometimes the user already “paid” the website owner by providing them with their personal data (which can be used for targeted marketing). This dark UX pattern is sometimes also called Forced Disclosure.
- A pop-up window or dialogue box making the user think that following its instructions will lead to one thing when actually something entirely different happens as the result. A commonly used example for this behavior is Microsoft’s attempt to market their update to Windows 10.
- Changing established patterns to trick users into action: leading the user through a series of very similar actions like clicking the continue button a couple of times during the installation of a program and then suddenly switching the meaning of the button e.g. to opt into something or buy something.
While this seems like pretty shady behavior which you wouldn’t expect companies to engage with, it’s actually quite common in e-commerce websites. It’s also sometimes used by headhunters who post very attractive yet fake job offers online to collect applications and CVs to find candidates for different, less attractive openings.
In UX bait and switch mainly refers to the practice of making the user believe that their action will result in one outcome when actually something entirely different ends up happening. Whether you call this “confusing the user” or straight up “lying to the user” is your choice, however employing this dark pattern will be met with rejection by users.
Why you should avoid dark patterns altogetherThe source of most dark patterns is quite understandable: usually, the interests of companies and customers tend to conflict with each other as companies usually want their customers to complete a certain action like giving up personal information, complete a purchase or otherwise convert.
On top of that dark patterns can be born from companies measuring their success by adhering to the wrong KPIs. For example, if marketing success is measured by the number of newsletter signups alone, managers will go to great lengths to increase the number of signups without considering long-term consequences. Even more so if the company’s goals expect unrealistic or unsustainable growth rates.
However, people in charge of making these design decisions should keep in mind that these methods might lead to the desired outcome in the short term but in the long term will offend your users as they will feel annoyed or even scammed upon being subjected to bait and switch. Also: most of the time websites, installation wizards or signup forms are confusing enough without things happening that the user didn’t intend.
If you need something from your users or customers, be honest. Ask them a favor by offering them something that is of real value to them in return. Try to make the intended action as attractive as possible to them while also making completing this action as easy as possible. All in all bait and switch is not very effective since most web users are very suspicious of offers that seem too good to be true and catch on very quickly. Keep in mind that it makes you look scammy and untrustworthy and losing a customer is certainly more expansive than losing some short term gains.