The Dangers of Dark Patterns

Karin Devenish
Mar 31, 2018 · 4 min read

I’m not talking about ominous themes in psychological thrillers, I’m talking about deceptive tricks used in website and apps. Dark Patterns allow for users to get tricked into doing things that the user doesn’t want to — taking away users’ fundamental rights to choose freely.

In essence, it creates a vulnerable environment for users because it builds layers of mistrust and inevitably at best will tarnish the reputation of the brand and at worst will compromise the integrity of data and privacy and hold brands liable through legal action e.g. LinkedIn fined in class action lawsuit

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LinkedIn prompting users to enter user email to spam friends

These shady but common practices are universally frowned upon but still used frequently today even by some of the world’s most recognizable and biggest brands like Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft without severe repercussions. Although some brands are caught, in the case of LinkedIn, where the company was fined $13 million dollars because they tricked their users into spamming their friends, majority of brands and companies get away with it easily.

Unfortunately, without stricter regulations companies will still employ these deceptive practices for short-term and long-term gains so they don’t actually have to utilize any ethical business or product strategies to increase their user base and/or revenue.

What essentially is a dark pattern?

UX Designer Henry Brignull coined the term “dark patterns” and helped classify every type of dark pattern on his website into these 11 categories:

  • Bait and Switch
  • Disguised Ads
  • Forced Continuity
  • Friend Spam
  • Hidden Costs
  • Misdirection
  • Price Comparison Prevention
  • Privacy Zuckering
  • Roach Motel
  • Sneak into Basket
  • Trick Questions

Like everyone else, I am also privy to being a victim of falling for dark patterns and here are a few that I’ve experienced in my personal life that were the most painful and excruciating.

Forced Continuity

This happens to me at least a few times a year and might happen again in the near future. To be honest, because it happens to me so much, I anticipate and expect it to happen to me again.

A good example is last month when I ended my Classpass trial, I almost got duped into paying for another cycle. It was only until I went into my “Settings” and realized that my payment plan had been automatically set up as auto-pay. I then freaked out because it was the last day of the trial but thought I was saved by clicking on link to cancel and discontinue my membership. To my surprise, the link took me straight to a chat box. It then dawned on me that the only way to cancel a Classpass membership is to chat with a representative, making the cancellation process more cumbersome.

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Here is a picture of my husband’s Classpass trial

Hidden Costs

I love traveling and but hate hidden fees when booking accommodation. These hidden fees are the reason I migrated from using websites like Expedia and Priceline to Airbnb. As soon as I discovered Airbnb, I was elated as it offered cheaper alternatives and more unique kinds of accommodation. I quickly became an advocate for the brand amongst my friends and family only to find to my dismay when Airbnb started including hidden fees masking as “service” and “cleaning” fees.

No Airbnb, just because you’re the cooler cousin of Expedia doesn’t mean we can’t see that you’re just the same as the rest of your family.

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An additional $68 in extra fees

Roach Motel

A few months back, I went through three whole days of just unsubscribing from newsletters. I couldn’t take the overwhelming amount of emails that I would receive everyday that I wouldn’t even read and most of the time, treated like spam. As I was unsubscribing, I didn’t remember subscribing to over 75% of the newsletters which left me perplexed regarding how most of these companies even obtained my email address in the first place.

One day I was shopping for a bathing suit on Nastygal and reached the checkout page and noticed the box for receiving news from Nastygal was already ticked.

All of a sudden it made so much sense why I was subscribed to so many damn newsletters. If I was in a hurry, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed and completed my purchase without unticking the box. And more oftentimes than not, I am in a hurry thus resulting in endless amounts of newsletters that take days to unsubscribe from!

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Nastygal automatic email opt-in

Will these patterns ever disappear?

Unless the government interferes by imposing stricter regulations on companies who continue to manipulate and deceive users through dark patterns, it will sadly continue. I believe the only way of combatting these dark patterns is through user awareness and empathetic design.

Therefore, users need to continuously stay informed, aware, and sometimes even cautious especially when it involves their sensitive information and designers need to constantly ask themselves whether they are truly creating a human-centric product. With these two behaviors and actions in tact, we can hope for a world where ethical design is not just a priority but a necessity.

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