Dark Patterns and You

The other day I came across an excellent article from Harry Brignull on TheVerge.com, which I wanted to share with you. In it Brignull dissects Dark Patterns. Ominous sounding, I know. You may not have heard the term before, but I’m sure you’ve encountered them in the past.

A dark pattern is any user interface which has been carefully designed to trick users into doing something they may not normally do. Like opting into a mailing list or buying an unwanted accessory for something they’re already purchasing. It’s not that email lists or up-sales are harmful in and of themselves, but they are when the user is tricked into compliance. And these aren’t just the practices of underhanded and shady businesses either. In his article, Brignull uncovers a dark pattern inside something millions of people use everyday–an iPhone. He describes going through the convoluted process of accessing the phones ad tracking feature and then covers the deception surrounding the off switch itself:

“If you haven’t been here before, the only option in the advertising menu, “Limit Ad Tracking” is probably selected “Off.”

But let’s take a closer look at the way this is worded. It doesn’t say “Ad Tracking – Off” it says “Limit Ad Tracking – Off”. So it’s a double negative. It’s not being limited, so when this switch is off, ad tracking is actually on. Off means on!

This is actually a great example of what I define as a “dark pattern.””

Dark patterns rely on the human tendency to make mistakes or not read instructions carefully. I fell victim to this recently when I signed up for a subscription to two popular magazines for only a few bucks a piece. But in order to get this price I had to give them billing info and they would automatically charge me full price on renewal. I signed up for these magazines through a middle man marketing company, and yes I should’ve known better, but I did realize the only way they could make money off this was from people forgetting to cancel their subscriptions. So I was determined not to fall for it.

When the point of renewal drew closer I visited the marketing company’s site to complete the arduous process of canceling. The site was a bit confusing, sure, but it went off without a hitch. And then, a month or so later, I found a $60 charge on my credit card. I was furious and to this day I’m not entirely sure what happened. Maybe I misplaced a check in a box? Maybe where it said “Limit Magazine Subscription” I hit off instead of on? I don’t know but I do know that the mistake cost me 60 bucks. And when I went back into their system, my subscription was almost impossible to find and only after a solid half hour of digging through their site was I able to cancel it. I felt like a rat skittering through a maze. That’s when I promised myself. Never. Again.

I did a quick Google search about the problems I had run into and I found out that I wasn’t alone, in my plight or my righteous anger. And that’s really the main issue with dark patterns, from a purely business and customer relations point of view. Sure they got their $60 dollars out of me but not another cent. And I’m sure that’s the same for the tons of other people whose accounts I read. Not only did they hurt their own brand but all of the brands they represented. It has been proven, time and again, that businesses thrive when they’re able to create meaningful relationships with their customers. Which in turn generates positive word of mouth–instead of flame wars and consumer complaints. Brignull puts it perfectly:

Good design — and good business — is all about empathy with our fellow humans. In fact it’s not really limited to business — it’s society as a whole. It’s what defines us as humans. To understand the true impact of your designs, you have to work at a human level of focus. You have to see the whites of their eyes and their facial expressions. That’s really the whole point.

At the end of the day, you should evaluate what you really want from your customers. Do you just want them to just use your service, or do you want more?

Personally I think usage alone is cheap. A good brand is liked. A great brand is loved and respected. You’ll never reach that point if you use dark patterns.

There are plenty of underhanded ways to get ahead but they won’t lead you anywhere worthwhile. And we’re not interested in them at 3PRIME because we know that not only do they reflect poorly on us but with everyone we’ve ever worked with. And the relationships we’ve established mean too much to us to ever put them in jeopardy.

(Article on Dark Patterns via The Verge)