Dark Patterns: fighting user deception worldwide

Learning to identify what dark patterns are (and why they’re used) will equip you with logical arguments if ever a client asks you to implement one. Let’s look at some examples and ways you can fight dark pattern usage!

Imagine that you are walking through a grocery store pushing your cart along and the manager of the store approaches you. She says, “I know you didn’t specifically request these, but here are some items that I thought would go well with what you’re already buying!” Worse yet, instead of giving you the choice, she takes it upon herself to just put the items in your cart.

Even though you have the choice to refrain from purchasing those items, most people would be (rightly) outraged and leave the store immediately. While this scenario would be inappropriate in a normal business setting, this is common practice for websites looking to sell goods online.

What are Dark Patterns?

Misleading design practices, are known as dark patterns. They’re most commonly seen in user-interface design on e-commerce websites or websites requiring registration, although they can certainly be seen elsewhere.

Often, clients see the use of dark patterns as a way to gain an advantage and retain more customers, or make more money, whilst failing to understand that these practices will hurt them in the long term. Learning to identify these dark patterns and why they are used will help you to become better informed – when a client asks you to implement one, you can counter with logical reasons as to why you should not.

Example 1: Bait and Switch

Our first dark pattern example is the classic fraudulent tactic of bait-and-switch. You’re asked to create a flashy looking button on a website that promises something (usually something free) and all the user has to do is click the button! Having done that, the user is asked to fill out a form with personal information, give credit card details, is presented with alternative products, or fulfill any other nefarious request the company might have.

While this might seem like something only a seedy online company would try, it’s actually a common occurrence on e-commerce websites. Large online sales companies often employ this technique by promising a huge deal on an item which is stocked only in small quantities. Once it transpires that the product is no longer available, having expressed an interest in that genre of product you’ll be exposed to similar items, which usually have a higher price tag.

Example 2: Forced Disclosure

A second type of dark pattern, and one with which most of us have some experience, is known as the forced disclosure pattern. In return for a free or low-cost action, the site requires the user to disclose extensive personal information unnecessary to the transaction at hand.

An example of this pattern in use is on the Yahoo Hot Jobs website where users are able to upload a resume and cover letter to be sent to many jobs at once. The problem occurs when the Hotjobs website form starts asking for quite a bit more information than would normally be needed to send to a potential employer.

Yahoo claims that it only uses this information to make an individual’s online experience better, but many companies will use tactics like this to collect and then sell large amounts of information to advertising companies. Advertisers are then able to compile market data and sales statistics. Also, as soon as you click “complete”, your information is published online without first warning you that it will be published. This allows all sorts of corporations to gather unfiltered information about you for as long as you unknowingly leave the information up. If you do realize that your information was published without your permission, it usually takes a significant amount of effort to go back and rectify the situation.

Example 3: Roach Motel

Making it easy to get into a situation, but extremely awkward to get out of it, brings up my third example known as the Roach Motel pattern. This type of dark pattern isn’t necessarily a new invention; the practice of obliging customers to opt-out of something will increase the chance that the customer will decide to pay because it’s simply easier.

A common way we see this tactic is through e-newsletter subscriptions. It’s usually extremely easy for you to sign up to receive emails, but as soon as you no longer want to receive those emails, it takes an enormous amount of effort to unsubscribe. The LA Fitness website actually required users to print out a form, fill it out and mail it in through the regular post office, just to cancel their personal accounts.

Some e-commerce websites allow you to add an item to your cart but make it near impossible to remove those items, forcing you to start all over if you want to change the items you wish to buy. Again, if you think about this in terms of a physical shopping experience, this tactic would simply never be allowed. Imagine how many complaints (not to mention threats to the manager’s life) there would be if a store did not allow you to remove items from your grocery cart. When used online, this tactic can be particularly sinister because the website is often playing off the uncertainty and inexperience many people face when purchasing an item or service online.

What Can You do?

While showing a boost in sales in the short-term, the negative consequences of using dark pattern tactics often catch up to online businesses further down the road. In his A List Apart article, Harry Brignull says:

Dark patterns tend to perform very well in A/B and multivariate tests simply because a design that tricks users into doing something is likely to achieve more conversions than one that allows users to make an informed decision.

The main consequence of a company using too many dark patterns is that consumers will simply cease to trust them and take their business elsewhere. In response to the growing number of complaints about online trickery, groups similar to the Better Business Bureau have sprung up to call attention to these unethical business practices. One such website known as darkpatterns.org is the leading source of information regarding dark patterns. They even have a specific section of the website where users can submit examples of dark patterns that are currently in use, posted for the entire world to see. This public humiliation is often a nightmare for PR departments that have to work quickly to minimize the damage.

Another negative consequence of employing dark patterns is the risk of a consumer bringing a lawsuit against the business, for what they perceive as employing crooked business practices. While defendants will usually win such cases (what they are doing is technically legal) the loss of trust from their consumer base and the attention from the media can certainly be damaging.

When a client or boss asks (or demands) that you employ these techniques, point out some of the cons. If the client is a professional, they will realize that by using dark patterns they are really just destabilizing the brand and trust that they’ve presumably worked hard to build. Another thing that you can mention is that it is against the code of ethics you stand by as a designer. Try directing them to darkpatterns.org and show them what could happen to their company if they choose to use these techniques. Also, consider that by designing a straight-forward and easy to use interface, dark patterns are often rendered unnecessary because it will be more likely that the user is free to make the decision that will be most beneficial to your company or client.

While it may not seem like an important thing to do at first, learning to identify and stop unethical behavior on the web is going to help the Internet grow in many ways. Aside from possibly saving you money and time, by helping to speak out against unethical behavior, you can keep the same thing from happening to a lot of other innocent customers. Besides, it is always nice to see a corrupt corporation get its comeuppance.