February 17, 2021

Dark Patterns & Manipulations

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If you’ve been following my posts, you might wonder exactly what the point of all this recent talk about cognitive biases and behavioral science is. How does it all link up to design? What does it have to do with accessibility? What’s the bigger picture here? Well, today I want to write about Dark Patterns, which I believe is the link that was missing for the connection to be clear.

This is all about how we apply cognitive science to design, development, and marketing, with mixed results. But let’s start at the beginning.

What is a Design Pattern?

Design patterns are reusable components or solutions to design problems. Christopher Alexander coined the term originally, meant to use it in architecture. It caught on fast in all design disciplines. Web, interaction and software design took to the concept like fish to water.

Some common design patterns you will instantly recognize are navigation menus, breadcrumbs, carousels, tabs and tag clouds.

What is a Dark Pattern?

The expression Dark Pattern is the brainchild of Harry Brignull, who since 2010 has been collecting, categorizing and educating about Dark Patterns online.

“A user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things… they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.”

Harry Brignull, 2010.

The main things to know about dark patterns are:

  • That they are not created in error, even though sometimes they might appear like it.
  • That they are built to trick and confuse people, rather than to clarify and explain.
  • That they rely on knowledge of psychology and decision-making to get people to behave a certain way.
  • That the way you are being tricked into behaving is not necessarily the way you would like to behave. They are self-interested.

Where do we see dark patterns?

Dark patterns are used all over the web. If you want a massive list of examples, check out the Dark Patterns Hall of Shame in their official twitter account. You can even submit your own examples of Dark Patterns you find in the wild.

The main contact points where we encounter Dark Patterns are the ones where we, as users, need to decide about providing the interface with something valuable, be it money, data or attention. Basically points where you decide whether to buy something, sign up for something, consent to cookies or continue in the interface rather than leave.

What is the problem with Dark Patterns?

I know some people will read this and think… “so what? our goal as designers and marketers is to get people to buy or sign up or engage. If we know psychology and how to use it to our advantage, then more power to us“. I have written my thoughts on that in the past, and the short version of it is that this is sad and pervasive myth, and we can and should do better.

Truth be told, anyone who is truly knowledgeable of design and marketing knows that the actual goal is the experience of your audience and the relationship you build with them. So if you are still wondering what is wrong with Dark Patterns, I will ask you three questions:

  • Do you like being tricked into buying things or revealing information you don’t want?
  • Would you return or continue to use a product or service that tricked you before?
  • If you need to resort to deception or manipulation and tricks to make people interact with your offer, how good of an offer can it be?

There are studies that have empirically found that the use of tricks and Dark Patterns to push a sale increase the feelings of regret in buyers, destroys brand equity by providing a bad association and ultimately backfire when assessing a customer’s lifetime value.

What can be done about it?

This is where things get complicated. Many Dark Patterns sit in the grey area in between legal and illegal. Many of these patterns are perfectly legal tactics, but sit on the shady side of ethics and user experience. Others are more clearly illegal… but depending on where and when they take place.

European and US legislation are increasingly paying attention to the development of these scenarios, and what they mean for consumer welfare. But because regulation so often lags technological advancement and, as we have seen with the rollout of GDPR, the territorial scope is difficult to assess, not to mention enforce, legal recourse is still not our best solution.

My opinion, which matches that of other people with far more knowledge on the matter than I have, is that the solution is not so straightforward. The key to stopping Dark Patterns will be a combination of legislation, education and information. People need to learn to identify these Dark Patterns and how to circumvent them or avoid them altogether. Businesses need to make a conscious effort to align their objectives with their audiences’ best interest. We all need to follow the guideline that affirmative, enthusiastic and informed consent is king.