Dark design patterns aren’t that dark

Jordin van Deyl
Oct 16 · 4 min read

Are you being manipulated by large corporations to do their bidding like a puppet on string? If you want a quick answer I’d say ‘no’. But the longer answer is more complicated and lies somewhere between ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I visited a UX meetup discussing the ‘dark side of UX’ or ‘dark patterns’. I will give a quick recap of what dark patterns are, discuss some examples and talk about why designers would use them, before answering the question above.

Image by Andrew Neel (Greensboro, United States)

So what are dark patterns?

For those who want to get back up to speed. When you want users on your website or your application to complete a set of actions you need an interface that accommodates them. Instead of continually reinventing the wheel these design patterns solve common design problems. Most designer use these as reference points and edit details where necessary. But what if these patterns are meant to trick you into doing things you might not want to do? This is what is referred to as ‘dark patterns’.

Lets look at some examples

Let me make things more interesting by sharing some examples. Facebook introduced a new segment to their site called ‘Watch’. Next to it is a red dot, which we all know means there is an unread message or notification. Naturally we have a tendency to clear it, either out of curiosity or because we want to clear the dot. Unfortunately, it’s impossible. The dot will stay there, no matter what you do. But why? Because Facebook wants you to check out this new feature and knows more people will click it by doing this, increasing it’s exposure.

This ‘red dot’ is not going anywhere…

This other example has been around for a while. Though it might not really be a dark pattern I believe it is a good way of showing how design can trick people. Imagine a theoretical scenario where you would try to download a movie or book. Through ways that may or may not be completely right. It could happen that you end up seeing a screen with about a hundred ‘download’ buttons. Good luck finding the right one!

Good luck finding the right button!

Or how about shaming you into taking a discount? It sounds strange, but it happens. They offer a great deal, but it requires you to sign up using your e-mail. You get the option to refuse, but it’s almost hidden. Not to mention they make you sound like you’re stupid for refusing.

Won’t you feel stupid for declining this deal?

If you want to read more, go to www.darkpatterns.org. Some of the examples on their ‘wall of shame’ are ridiculous and actually made me laugh. (Though it is sad to know these are from actual companies/designs). They also have a list of commonly used dark patterns.

Why use dark patterns?

I suppose they are used because they work. Whether we like it or not, they use the same heuristics as ‘good design patterns’, but invert them. They are based on the same neuropsychology. Let’s take for example our tendency not to read stuff. People are generally lazy in that regard. If we were to have an option we don’t really want users to find, we simply hide it in a long paragraph of text. Problem solved.

Back to our original question

So are you being victimized by dark patterns? Now we arrive at the question of ethics and whether we are being played by the companies that employ these dark patterns. During the UX meetup we walked through the history of dark patterns, their uses and more. And it was during these discussions and talks afterwards that I realized there actually aren’t any dark patterns. They don’t exist.

There are, without a doubt, certain situations in which I would not agree with the use of certain patterns. But it depends on several factors. For starters, do people choose to be influenced? What if someone is trying to lose weight, or quit smoking. What if we used ‘dark patterns’ as a way of tricking people into giving up that candy bar or cigarette. If that helps them reach their goal, is it wrong to use whatever means we have to help them? Which brings us to our second point. If a company/designer is using certain patterns to reach a goal, is that meant to benefit the user or the company. Ideally we want our work to benefit both. If the design is simply meant to benefit the company at the cost of the user I would consider it a dark pattern. There are more factors to consider such as social factors, cultural norms, greater good, and more. But I believe a good starting point is looking at the reason for using certain patterns.

So to conclude

Dark patterns are simply design patterns. They can be used for good and bad. That is why they aren’t that dark. One user might be upset if an item is sneaked into his shopping basket, but another may be very appreciative because it is just the thing he was missing. In the end it comes down to the intentions of the designers and the companies that hired them.

If you liked this article and have questions or suggestions, please leave a message below. Thank you for reading!

Jordin van Deyl

Written by

I’m a UX designer with a background in work- and organizational psychology and an interest in all things neuro and behavioral www.jordinvandeyl.nl

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