Dark Patterns and the Ethics of Design

Issue 19

Nov 29, 2017 · 6 min read

Adventures in UX Design is a newsletter helping you navigate UX roadblocks

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Dark design patterns use all of the powers of visual design with the flair of a magician’s misdirection, and the language of a shady sideshow barker (dare you to say ‘shady sideshow barker’ eight times in a row). These patterns are in direct opposition to concepts we celebrate in design, such as empathy, human or user-centered, and inclusivity. Dark patterns rob customers of their agency.

These interactions automatically enroll us in a newsletter, because a default box we didn’t notice was checked. The shadow of a dark pattern emerges when items are added to a shopping cart that the customer hasn’t selected, and inadvertently purchases. They are present in experiences that make it difficult for customers to unsubscribe or delete an account.

Some say these patterns are as old as the Internet, but one wonders if they don’t echo an older, more elementary human behavior. They have the ethical backbone of an unscrupulous 19th century tonic peddler — the kind of chronic confabulator and professor of misdirection that Mark Twain would have skewered.

The topic of ethical design was all over the news this year, and with good reason. Many of us have seen technology as agnostic, as potential, and not political. Ethics lie not in systems but in individuals. But is that entirely accurate? We’ve read about the attention economy, rapid proliferation of fake news, and charges that data-obsessed social networks place business models over the individual and democracy, and should be regulated.

What are the consequences of our actions? What ethical considerations should designers and creators weigh when they develop a new product? Many of us are in conflict with executive strategies we are asked to implement on the job, that we feel we cannot influence or change. With whom does the burden lie for what we create and how it is used?

1. On The Run

If customers hate and feel cheated by dark patterns so much, why do these patterns persist? Dark patterns emphasize short-term gains, and offenders include some of the world’s biggest brands, such as Microsoft, Facebook, and LinkedIn, among others.

The impetus to use these patterns often lies with a manager who needs to move a metric, such as increasing the number of newsletter subscriptions, writes John Brownlee of Fast Company.

“So a manager who is tasked with increasing the number of people who sign up for a company’s newsletter might order a website designer to use a dark pattern to capture email addresses, because it’s an easy short-term solution that doesn’t really require any effort,” writes Brownlee.

Companies like LinkedIn have used dark patterns to their advantage, often snookering customers in spite of the negative consequences.

While experts are unanimous about dark patterns — they don’t like them, and can point to countless examples of how they poison customer loyalty — no one believes they are going anywhere just yet.

UX designer Harry Brignull, featured in John Brownlee’s Fast Company article, and in a podcast we reference below, is credited with coining the term dark patterns. His website is devoted to cataloguing examples of these patterns into types he has defined:

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

As both Brownlee and Brignull acknowledge, many of these patterns are part of a strategy implemented by managers, and executives, that designers are asked to create. The end-goal is the only consideration in sight.

When designers and creative professionals are placed in situations where their personal ethics are being challenged, how can they respond constructively, to articulate their concerns and influence the strategy?

Hannah du Plessis explores the power of relational leading in a UIE seminar. Hannah recommends that designers take time to define a personal manifesto that outlines their values. What matters most to you? How is your work reflective of these values? Hannah believes that making a commitment to understanding the nature of change (hint: it’s incremental, and facts don’t persuade people), practicing active listening skills, and building communication skills can help professionals reframe the conversations around them.

READ: Why Dark Patterns Won’t Go Away by John Brownlee

PERUSE: Darkpatterns.org

WATCH:Small Acts to Shift Big Things with Hannah du Plessis

2. A Checkout Scanner Darkly

Nowhere are dark patterns more insidious than in the shopping carts of e-commerce websites. Ben Davis shares examples of some of the biggest offenders, including (surprise) airlines, in his article on Econsultancy. You might ask: shouldn’t these practices be illegal? And in Europe, yes, much of them are.

These patterns may trick you into an upgrade while purchasing a plane ticket, hide costs, or even, surprisingly as Ben shares, trick you into donating to a zoo when all you simply want to do is buy a ticket to visit.

How do dark patterns do this? They use color, button placement, and vague or confusing language. Some default-select checkboxes on screens that automatically subscribe users to services they didn’t want. Many of these interactions force careful users to examine the screen for hidden costs, deselect items automatically added to baskets — essentially, they take advantage of the fact that people don’t naturally shop online on the defensive to complete a simple task.

Some companies remove dark patterns in response to customer complaints, and hosts of the UX podcast, James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom, believe the power of customer complaints can contribute to shift the balance of dark in favor of light patterns.

But what are these light patterns? In an episode of the podcast with Harry Brignull, the hosts discuss how designers can influence strategy and style of a brand to move it away from the dark side and call for designers to celebrate good UX and usability that embody light patterns that emphasize empathy, usability, and ethical design.

READ: 13 Examples of dark patterns in ecommerce checkouts by Ben Davis

LISTEN: UX Podcast: Dark Patterns with Harry Brignull

BONUS READ: Modern Media is a DOS attack on your free will

3. Technology Isn’t Neutral: Ethics In Design

Cennydd Bowles believes design artifacts have politics, and when we are neutral or dismissive of those politics, we are avoiding the responsibility we have and the role that we play as creators. He shares some examples:

“Every object we make exists in the future. We are making a statement when we design: which futures are desirable or undesirable,” explains Cennydd.

Defining your values, building an ethical core to your work, requires effort. We become more moral in our lives, Cennydd explains, by working at it, building awareness and reflection of the choices we make and the impact of those choices. Designers can address their concerns and infuse ethics into their work at three levels: individual, company, and community.

Cennydd defines four tests, or as he calls them, “provocations, things to use yourself to examine the moral impact of the choices that you make.”

Four Ethical Tests To Examine the Moral Impact Of Your Work

  1. What if everyone did what I’m about to do? Would the world be better or worse with it?
  2. Am I treating people as ends or as means? For designers, this is about considering the role of users in a system. Are you treating them as individuals with goals more important than your own? A data-driven company should ask itself this.
  3. Am I maximizing happiness for the greatest number of people? What are the consequences, the impacts of our choices? How do we assess or measure happiness? This is a perspective that helps ground us in the impact of our work.
  4. Would I be happy for this to be published in tomorrow’s papers? This test emphasizes accountability — the sort of person you are and want to be.

Cennydd describes design as applied ethics. It is a sentiment that Mike Monteiro might agree with. Mike explains that as creators, and humans, our work impacts the world. It’s part of our legacy. How does your work speak for you and reflect who you are?

“Every human being on this planet is obligated to do our best to leave this planet in better shape than we found it. Designers don’t get to opt out,” explains Mike.

In his post on design ethics, Mike explains that as creators we have agency. Designers and creative professionals are hired for their expertise, their opinion. Saying no is a design skill. Asking why is a design skill. Listening to criticism is a design skill. Knowing your audience is a design skill. Having empathy, being part of a community, engaging in self-reflection: these are all part of being a good designer, and a good human.

WATCH: Ethics for the AI Age with Cennydd Bowles

READ: A Designer’s Code of Ethics by Mike Monteiro


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