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Dark patterns: web designs that deceive users

  1. Unsplash: beastydesign
    Melissa Tredinnick

    Melissa Tredinnick UKBF Regular Staff Member

    257 1
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    If you’ve ever found yourself unwillingly subscribed to a mailing list, paying for a service you thought you were still trialling for free, or caught out by hidden costs on an online store, you’re not alone.

    Whether you’ve noticed them or not, the internet is full of websites that take advantage of your subconscious choices to manipulate you into doing something you didn’t intend to do. 

    The phrase “dark patterns” was coined in 2010 by user experience designer Harry Brignull, who started the website with the object of naming and shaming companies that use this kind of deceptive user interface.

    The website splits dark patterns into 12 different categories, ranging from trick questions and misdirection to hidden costs and disguised ads.

    A recent study from Princeton University in the US analysed data from 11,000 shopping websites, and found around 11% contained some form of dark pattern – although the paper says the actual percentage is likely to be higher.

    Perhaps more worryingly for the average consumer, it found that the more popular websites were more likely to feature dark patterns, making it all the more likely that you’ll come across these manipulative interfaces in your day-to-day life.

    What’s so dark about them?

    That all sounds very sinister, but what makes these kind of practices any different to the usual sales or marketing techniques you might use in your business?

    After all, much of user-experience work revolves around assessing how a user is likely to respond to a design, and making choices based on psychological insights. 

    Creating a sense of urgency is a common part of many sales processes, and persuasive copywriting often relies on tapping into a reader’s emotions to influence their decision-making. 

    So at what point do these design and marketing choices cross the line to the dark side?

    What distinguishes dark patterns is that they’re deceptive – in many cases, they push users to do something they didn’t want to do, benefitting the business at the expense of the customer.

    There’s a difference between using user psychology to make your website easy to navigate and showing your business in the best light, and using it to trick people into agreeing to something they’ll regret later on.

    For example, it’s not unusual to attract a user to a course of action – let’s say, upgrading to a premium service – by clearly setting out the benefits, and presenting it favourably. 

    Example 1: Users are given a clear choice between upgrading their account and choosing not to, and the cost of the service is easy to see.

    But it’s another thing to intentionally confuse or mislead users, or to withhold or hide information about your product.

    Example 2: It's harder for users to see what they're agreeing to, and the option to say no is worded in a negative way – an example of "confirmshaming". The cost of the service is hidden in small print, too.

    Of course, not all examples are this black and white – businesses need to strike a balance between their user’s best interests and their own.

    Long-term damage for short-term gain

    The problem is, dark patterns seem to work. They often perform well when they’re tested against alternative designs, and, in the short term, they achieve what they set out to do.

    But while you may have succeeded in collecting an email address, or profited by charging a customer additional fees, these kind of designs will probably damage your reputation and your relationships with customers in the long term.

    That’s unlikely to help your business to succeed against the competition, as Brignull explains.

    “It’s just a matter of time before a competitor comes along who provides a better experience,” he says. “If your business depends on dark patterns to succeed, you’re just leaving yourself open to being disrupted.”

    Realising you’ve been tricked isn’t a nice feeling, and once someone figures out that the choice they made wasn’t the one they intended, they probably won’t buy from your business again, and they certainly won’t recommend you to a friend. 

    It’s not just bad practice – in some cases, it’s becoming illegal. Legislation was introduced in the US earlier this year to prohibit “deceptive user interfaces”, for example.

    Across the pond in the UK, some forms of dark pattern already come under practices that are prohibited by data protection law. 

    For example, so-called “privacy zuckering”, in which users are tricked into sharing more information about themselves than they intend to, would probably contravene GDPR in most cases.

    And if that’s not enough to put you off, there’s the threat of being publicly shamed on the Dark Patterns Twitter.

  2. Karimbo

    Karimbo UKBF Ace Free Member

    1,876 193
    A lot of the issues in the dark patterns twitter stream isn't actually that bad. If you're a smartphone user you need to be a bit sharper that's all. People are bombarded with opt ins, offers, call to actions that you have to do this sort of stuff so you can actually make a sale.

    The RNLA recently announced that they are no longer going to follow GDPR practice on opt-in, and going to start sending emails out to everyone on their list. They lost a lot of donation income after complying with GDPR and it's affecting their service as their funding has taken a huge dip.
    Last edited: Oct 7, 2019
    Posted: Oct 7, 2019 By: Karimbo Member since: Nov 5, 2011