Light in the dark. Metaphors!!

Making Light Out of Dark Patterns

Recently, I bought a ticket online for a concert. There was nothing particularly unusual about this purchase, it’s something I do frequently. I use different websites for different events — sporting events, musical events — the bottom line is, they are all fairly similar. You’ll see common visual design patterns across the board.

Now, living in Australia has taught me that when a band I like is coming here, I need to buy my ticket quick — it will sell out. Three years and I think I’ve learnt my lesson.

This means, that process of buying tickets has a slight bit more anxiety attached to it than usual.

The countdown timer…and some biases

One common pattern you’ll see when you go to buy tickets is something like this:

Ticketmaster Countdown Clock

Not all that unfamiliar if you’ve been purchasing tickets, right? Now, while this serves a good purpose, particularly in those instances of sales for in-demand events, you’ll also notice that websites like Ticketmaster use this for all their ticket sales. This very example, I just pulled up from the first event I found on their homepage.

So, helpful, right? They are being fair, they are giving me a time limit, I rush to get it done. It’s a stressful time. Even when not necessarily in a rush to purchase tickets, that ticking clock suddenly puts me in a different mindset. Loss aversion kicks in. Suddenly, the tickets are MINE. They are in my cart. If I don’t follow through, I lose them. Aaaah!

As well as loss aversion, scarcity kicks in. We treat the tickets as more valuable because we know there’s only so many available. We know we need to act soon or they could be gone — so we respond. How do we respond?

Well, how do you respond when you’ve got a deadline? Stress and anxiety make it harder to focus on the bigger picture, and you just focus on getting it done.

Usually, you want to buy the tickets (or you wouldn’t have got that far) and therefore the timer here just forces you over the line. You get your tickets, everyone’s happy.

Back to my recent purchase

So let me talk about the purchase I referenced at the start of this article.

As I said, I’ve done this plenty of times before, nothing crazy here. Except that on this particular occasion, I was on a different website to normal.

In my ‘mad dash’ to get through this checkout and get my tickets, I confirmed it was the right gig, the right date, the right quantity and made my purchase.

Then I got this email:

Ehhh… event ticket insurance? What?!

Huh? What is event ticket insurance?

Well, I obviously got onto the company pretty quickly and asked about this. It’s an additional option in the checkout that I had inadvertently selected. Or had I? It seems they’d made that decision for me.

I was offered my refund and gladly accepted, but the $2 refund wasn’t the point. It was the betrayal of trust that I experienced that had made me upset. I was vulnerable at the moment of purchasing, I was focussed on following their rules they had set for me (the timer) and making sure I got my ticket. I wasn’t checking everything in as much detail as I usually would.

A quick look at the company’s Facebook page and I saw I certainly wasn’t the only one to have this issue.

In fact there’s (an admittedly small) movement on Facebook against this ‘scam’, and the ‘Product Review’ website has some more reviews on the exact same issue that I’m discussing here.

I’ve recently revisited this website to have a look at the checkout screen. I wondered how I could have possibly made this mistake.

Where did I go wrong?

Here’s the checkout screen for the website in question:

Couple of things to note.

There’s three main issues I see here.

One — there is a price summary of the top of the page with an itemised listing of all purchases. Interestingly, there’s no ‘total’ here, or a subtotal. Then, under the payment section below, at ‘Process Order’ there’s a credit card charge, which has magically added in the ticket insurance amount to it.

Is there at any point an itemised list of products with the ticket insurance listed? No.

Sure, it’s on the page in a checkbox. Interestingly they’ve went for a blue background for their ‘standout text’. What colour is the default checkbox in OS X (Safari and Chome)? Blue. That’s interesting, I can barely see that the box is checked.

Another interesting observation. Yes, they’ve added a section for event ticket insurance, but what colour is the text on that blue background? BLACK.

It doesn’t take a design degree (and I don’t have one anyways) to tell that it’s harder to read the text on the blue than the text on the white. It requires cognitive energy to do so, and being ‘insurance’, the chances are, we’ll not invest that energy. We’ll skip past it, it’s not important.

The third and final thing I noticed in this checkout, to, ahem, irk me, was the use of the sentence where they mention the price of the event ticket insurance. The actual cost is buried in a sentence. In this black text, on a blue background.

It is incredibly easy to lose this cost in a quick scan of the page.

It’s not itemised like the costs at the top, and the credit card charge makes no mention of the ticket insurance. In fact, the only give away to me was when I received my email with said ticket insurance.

Yes, I got it refunded. But how many people couldn’t be bothered with that process? How many people never realize they opted in for this? How much extra money does this company make of this practice, which is clearly the very opposite of user-centered design?

Now, the definition of anti user-centered design? Well, let’s have a little look-see at what the company themselves said on their Facebook, in reponse to one of their reviews on this matter (there’s over 40 of them):

Hmmm… ‘research’.

Ehhh.. excuse me? Aside from not coming across a practice just as ‘sneaky’ as this (I mean black text on blue, come on), surely ‘we researched into other online companies and they do it like this’ is not perhaps, the best thinking.

It shows zero regard for the user.

Dark Patterns

This example is the perfect example of a dark pattern. What is it?

“A Dark Pattern is a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.”

Essentially, this company is banking on people not noticing this checkbox and therefore not changing the default and paying a few extra dollars. They’ve clearly designed the page in such a way that not just do you have to uncheck the box, but you have to spend extra mental energy reading the information about that ticket insurance, and speficially search for the price.

No nicely broken down totals / subtotals / shipping tables here, folks.

Another great example of dark patterns, you’ll find on many airlines. Where they’ll automatically choose seats for you, and charge you for picking your own seats, before you even realise you can edit them. They also do a similar thing with insurance, often requiring that you un-tick a pre-selected insurance (read more here), although to be fair some of these aren’t as hidden as the example I’ve discussed in this article.

Organ Donations and Form Defaults

Recently, I watched an excellent Ted Talk from Shlomo Benartzi on behavioural economics.

He had an excellent slide in there around the defaults on application forms for drivers licenses in Austria and Germany.

In Germany, there’s a checkbox on the form for opting into organ donation. Around 12% tick this box. In Austria, the default is that you are opted in. Their statistics? Around 1% opt out. That means the organ donation rate in Germany is 12%, versus 99% in Austria. All because of one box on a form. (Exact stats)

There’s a few psychological reasons why this happens (for example, automation bias), but really it comes down to us ‘looking for the easy thing to do’.

We know donation is the right thing to do, and if it’s already selected for us, it’s much harder to act against it. That requires ‘taking a stance’. The same goes for when it’s automatically not selected. We may want to donate the our organs, but having to go and check the box requires making a decision, taking a stance — and so less people do it.

This idea, used in this example of Austrian organ donation, has got a name. And it’s a biggie. ‘Libertarian paternalism’. A phrase coined by Richard Thaler:

“The idea that it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice, as well as the implementation of that idea”

In this case, setting better defaults in order to affect behaviour in a positive manner. Interestingly enough, the methods for doing this, are identical to many of those found in dark patterns.

Beyond this organ donation idea, I’ve seen the same thing on charitable websites, so that when donating money, you’re encouraged to donate in certain sums — making it easier to donate a larger amount, than if you were to enter in the amount yourself.

Notice $50 is the default and $20 is the lowest? You can actually donate whatever you want, but the subtle sizing of the ‘other’ button is suggesting you should use it to donate more...

In the context of giving to charity, it’s not seen as bad thing to promote that we donate more. And, in fairness, it’s as easy as selecting ‘Other’ if we only want to donate $5. There’s psychology at play here, but there’s a difference between a form like this on the Save the Children website and ‘event ticket insurance’ on a ticketing website.

The differences, are the reasons behind them.

Making light out of dark patterns

I believe that in this day in age, people creating websites wield a lot of power. The sense of trust we have in the internet, is growing — the rise of Uber, AirBNB and similar crowd-based products are surely evidence of this.

People are spending more time and money creating websites, and for the most part, they are much more human centered, trustworthy and let’s face it, better experiences than they have been in the past.

I think we are getting away from dark patterns. Companies realise that being trustworthy and encouraging return visits, and promoters, is much more important than any short term gain, like ~$2 from a ticket sale.

So for each website, I see out there, like an OzTix, I like to think of them as the ‘old way of doing things’ — and know that those same psychological phenomena being used to ‘earn a few extra bucks’ — are also saving lives.

And that’s how we can make light out of dark patterns.