Designed to Trick: Shining a Light on Dark Patterns

The user interfaces we interact with on websites and in software every day offer sets of usability solutions called design patterns. There are effective patterns that meet their usability goals, and there are others that fall short. For the most part, we do not have to be concerned about the intentions behind their decisions.

There are some patterns, however, that do not have your best interests in mind, and since they are designed to avoid detection, you might not even realize they are there. They are called “dark patterns.”

That sounds sinister! What are they?

A good definition can be found on the Dark Patterns site, which has become the de facto source for information on the subject:

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.

“Carefully crafted to trick.” It is worded such that intent is a required element. This is specifically different from an anti-pattern, one which inadvertently tricks the user with no ill intent. What makes a dark pattern dark is its calculated intent to trick you.

Why would you want to trick me?

Dark patterns do not necessarily start out dark. Imagine you are the lead User Experience engineer on a project. You have only good intentions and want to apply everything you know about UX toward giving users the best possible experience.

Your site launches. Everything works great, and the users are happy. The numbers have even improved! But now you are hearing it from your VP of Marketing: “We are not getting enough sign-ups! Get us more.” And from the Customer Retention Manager: “We are getting too many cancellations! Get us fewer.”

Despite a successful launch and honeymoon period, the results are not matching expectations. It might have nothing to do with your site, but they put the responsibility on you to make things better, and magically: “Just fix it!”

Now I am not saying your first idea will be to deceive your users. Perhaps neither will your second. But as time goes on and the screws tighten, the “easy” out starts to look more and more appealing.

Dark patterns emerge when the user loses priority to the metrics.

This is sounding familiar

Gyms are notorious for using a dark pattern called the “Roach Motel”. The flick of a pen is all it takes to become a member, but when it comes time to cancel, gyms are known for creating an elaborate set of procedures that must be followed exactly.

Perhaps you recognize the Roach Motel pattern even if you were not familiar with the term. You probably know of some websites or mailing lists that make it difficult to leave (gym memberships for the internet). Other dark patterns can be much more subtle.

All of the Carfaxes!

Last year, I was interested in buying a used car being offered by a private seller. Like any wise car buyer, I did my due diligence and ordered a Carfax report for the vehicle. Caveat emptor! Let us walk through my exact experience and see if any dark patterns emerge.

From the Carfax home page, I enter the VIN of the vehicle and click “GO”.

Now we are presented with an order form. At first glance, it looks like any other order form, but glance too fast and you might not realize you are buying the Unlimited Reports package. Where we were led to believe we were ordering a single report, we are shown a form for ordering a “package”, which defaults to the largest and most expensive.

It is hard to imagine that a sizable portion of users who search for a single VIN would want to purchase more than one report, let alone an unlimited number of reports. So if not for the interest of the user, what could possibly motivate Carfax to make the unlimited option the default?

There is a bit of a retrospective bias that comes into play when examining dark patterns. You might be thinking: “I would not have fallen for that!” And while it is very possible that you would have evaded the ruse, the success or failure of the dark pattern does not depend on you specifically.

Dark patterns rely on just some users being tricked. The Carfax pattern is effective if just some fail to notice they are ordering unlimited reports.

But wait! While we were dodging one dark pattern and filling out our form, we almost missed another at the bottom. After the big green “BUY NOW” button that should typically mark the end of a form — with a solid ninety pixels of space in between — there is this:

On many screens, you have to scroll past the submit button to see this marketing opt-out, so you might never even know it is there. They have presented it as an option but designed it to be missed by the user and to do something that the user might not want to do.

Education, my faithful sword

We have seen how the user experience can be blighted by dark patterns, yet there is no shortage of examples, so their allure must be compelling. How do we guard against them in our own work?

As it turns out, simply knowing of dark patterns and being able to identify them individually by their (rather unflattering) names is the best defense. They are so nasty that the community has labeled and categorized them. That is as damning of an indictment as any.

You will at some point in your career be pressured to implement a pattern that spites the user in an attempted “fix” a perceived problem. It is important to be able to communicate its dangers and trade-offs, namely the risk of annoying your users and losing their trust. The effects could be permanent and could cost you more in the long run than any potential gains. In the end, we should strive to deliver to the user the experience that we would want for ourselves.

Corey Glynn, Strategist at Imarc
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