UX Black Markets

A black market forms when people can’t meet their needs in officially provided channels. I define a UX “black market” similarly: Users are hacking or sidestepping the official system because the official system doesn’t provide the desired functionality.

That’s right, it’s just an ugly way of saying “desire path.”1 🤷

While negative, it can be useful phrasing especially when stakeholders are jaded from long exposure to the product’s “normal use” or (worse) have an antagonistic relationship with users. Such stakeholders are tired of trying to get users to “play by the rules,” and forget to listen to user’s behavior to learn from them and collaborate with them.

Where do “black markets” appear? Any plain text field you give a user that they can search on (titles, tags, group names, etc.) Export and upload systems are frequently hacked by power users, reporting systems, even foreign keys in databases. Basically, if you build it, they will come hack it.

While “black markets” can be a frustration for your operations and customer support teams, you can co-opt this “desire path/black market” energy into product insights. You can ask support personnel for anecdotal evidence (“what’s a weird way a user uses our system?”) or crawl support tickets for patterns. Your legal team may have stories of people breaking your TOS to achieve a goal. You can even use “fake door” tests to create a sort of “honey pot” for desire paths hypotheses… I’m sure there’s more. So far I’ve simply taught product owners and other stakeholders what a “black market” is. They’ve brought me loads of examples which I am slowly teaching them to understand as users expressing their unmet needs.

If you ask your stakeholders “what are your users trying to tell you, what do they desire?” and you get blank stares… try asking for “black markets” and see where it takes you.


  1. A desire path is a manifestation of a user communicating that the provided system doesn’t meet their needs. Here’s an article from treehugger talking about physical desire paths. 


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Changelog
  • 2021-01-09 23:08:29 +0000

    fix typo

  • 2021-01-07 15:59:00 +0000

    Fix strike through

  • 2021-01-07 15:27:01 +0000

    Add bold and remove words

  • 2021-01-07 15:19:03 +0000

    Incorporate feedback

    Thank you Tom and Mike!

  • 2021-01-07 13:55:06 +0000

    new post: UX Black Markets