Dark patterns are features of interface design crafted to trick users into doing things that they might not want to do, but which benefit the business in question. Here’s an example: have you ever tried to delete your Amazon account? Here’s the Amazon homepage. What’s the first thing you might think to do? The obvious place to look is the account drop-down, here. Once you’re in here, you look around — it’s a lot of information. But if I’m interested in deleting my account, I’d think that ‘Your Account’ is probably a good place to go. Once I’m on this page, there’s a lot more information: ‘Payment options’, ‘Login & security’ and a bunch of stuff down here. Unfortunately, you could click every link on your account page but none would deliver you to a place where you could actually delete it, because it’s not here. In order to actually delete your Amazon account, you have to go all the way down to the bottom of the page, and under ‘Let Us Help You’ click ‘Help’. Once you’re in here, you have to navigate to ‘Need More Help?’ because, y’know, putting it on this page would just be too easy. Then click ‘Contact Us’.
(This is where it starts to get ridiculous.) It’s still nowhere to be seen, but of the four options on the top that you want help with, click ‘Prime or Something else’.
(You want the ‘Something else’.) In this ‘Tell us more about your issue’ drop-down, there’s still nothing that suggests account deletion; you just have to know to click ‘Login and security’, and then in a second drop-down, there it is, the magic button — ‘Close my account’. Except in order to actually do that, you now have to have a chat conversation with an Amazon associate who’s going to tell you all the reasons account deletion is a bad idea. See, you can’t delete the account yourself;
they have to do it for you. This is a dark pattern: a crappy user experience that intentionally makes it difficult, almost impossible without help, to do something that hurts Amazon. UX specialist Harry Brignull categorizes the specific kind of dark pattern as a ‘roach motel’: a design that makes it very easy for you to get into a situation, but very hard to get out. Brignull’s actually the one who coined the term ‘dark pattern’ in 2010 and he’s been cataloguing and lecturing about the issue ever since. Many of these dark patterns we’re all familiar with; I only have to search my email for a few seconds to find one. For example, here: I’m getting spam emails from Architectural Digest. I scroll down, and… Look at that. This is a mess, but it’s a mess on purpose. The unsubscribe link is here but it’s devilishly hard to see. That’s because it’s the same font and virtually the same color as the rest of the fine print. Here’s another dark pattern that uses color to misdirect: over at the UserTestingBlog, Jennifer Derome points out that the mobile game Two Dots carries you through the experience by offering green buttons. A green button to start the game, a green button to pick a level, a green button to start the level and three green buttons to continue to the next level, and so on. But once you lose a level, the color scheme changes. The first screen button you see leads you right to an in-app purchase, while the continue button is just a little X that blends into the larger element. (I wonder how many people clicked ‘Buy Moves’ reflexively as a Pavlovian response.) Now to be fair, this is a pretty benign dark pattern, but it shows how companies can use something as simple as color to trick you into doing what they want. On the more egregious end of the spectrum, you have stuff like this banner ad for Chatmost, which is made to look like it has a speck of dust on it, causing people to brush it away and accidentally click the link. Or you have sites like Booking.com where they do everything in their power to increase the urgency of a purchase, going so far as to alert you in big red notifications of the hotel rooms that you *just* missed. (I mean, you better book now. You don’t want to be left behind again, do you?) Every once in a while, a company goes a little too far and actually breaks the law. Remember when you used to get spam with all those LinkedIn invites from friends? Well, that was because of a confusing dark pattern on their ‘Add Contacts’ page which allowed LinkedIn to scoop up people’s email contacts and send them messages repeatedly without their consent. In a comprehensive blog post, Dan Schlosser showed how LinkedIn tried to trick users eight times in their sign up and onboarding procedures into surrendering their email contacts. Unfortunately for LinkedIn, this proved to be a step too far; users filed a legal challenge claiming that sending multiple unwarranted emails hurt their professional reputation. LinkedIn settled the dispute for $13 million, which came out in the end to about $10 per user. It’s rare for dark patterns face consequences like these. Mostly, they stay *just* on the right side of the law, understanding that it’s hard to legislate around the psychological tricks of UX design. Everything on the internet is fighting for your attention, but there’s a difference between those who are taking the time to build trust and loyalty and the special offer you clicked which actually enrolled you in a monthly subscription, or the social network that dark-patterned you into letting it sell data that you didn’t even know it had. Some of the responsibility is on us but some is on design, too. And it’s not the fault of the designers — they’re just doing what they’re tasked to do, knowing full well that if they don’t, others will. As Brignull says, “Our best defense against the dark patterns is to be aware of them, and shame the companies who utilize them.” Design is what mediates our interaction with the Internet: it’s the language we read it in. It’s not too much to ask that that language be comprehensible and honest. [Hey, everybody! 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