This post is inspired by my recent experience of trying to book hotel accommodation online through booking.com. Once I was presented with the list of available hotels and I was perusing the various offerings in regards to room size and breakfast options, I felt a sense of urgency of a purchase. This was prompted by the website notifying how many people have booked each hotel in the last 24 hrs, and flashing a critical alert in red, alerting me that the hotel I was looking at is NO LONGER AVAILABLE and I HAVE UNFORTUNATELY MISSED OUT.
Admittedly, I temporarily panicked that all the hotels in Dorset might get booked up before I managed to make an informed decision on whether sea view rooms are worth the extra cost. But after a while, I realised that this is just another example of a dark pattern in UX.
Dark patterns are defined as instances where designers use their knowledge of psychology and human behavior and the desires of end users to implement deceptive functionality that is not in the user’s best interest.
Have you ever tried to close or deactivate an online account only to find that it is actually an impossible task (Amazon Prime, I am looking at you!). Have you ever tried to unsubscribe from an email newsletter, and failing to do so, as you get lost in the process?All these are examples of ‘dark patterns’. For example, in dark UX, colour theory can be manipulated to misdirect; language can be used confuse rather than clarify, and the user is exploited to boost company reach or profits.
Expanding shopping basket
Another example of a dark pattern in UX, is when ‘things’ suddenly appear in your shopping cart by default with no-opt in. Also known as ‘inertia shopping’ or ‘negative option billing’, this dark pattern is considered unethical but was legal (at the time). And that’s how I ended up with a massive Sports Direct mug on my desk.
Even though the concept of dark pattern in UX is not new, (even though this will be the first year where a ‘Dark UX Award‘ is being added to the UX UK award categories)
Distraction = deception
Distraction is another deceptive design technique deployed to sneak more from the user than they realise. Cute looking graphics, fluffy child-like fonts, primary colours all used to make you ‘warm towards’ a particualr brand and earn your trust (especially when they are asking for privacy settings). One could argue that the whole brand of Google is based on this premise – using deception as a dark pattern to assure you they are safe and fun and all round ‘good guys’ that do not do bad things such us surveillance or persuade you to buy things.
UX designer Harry Brignull who coined the term back in 2010, confirms that dark patterns DO (superficially) work.
“Dark patterns tend to perform very well in A/B and multivariate tests simply because a design that tricks users into doing something is likely to achieve more conversions than one that allows users to make an informed decision”
Even though the popular press and practitioners have latched on the term ‘dark patterns’ as a means of discussing and raising awareness of the danger of manipulative design practices (see examples of how Uber used psychological tricks to prod their drivers into working longer and harder), this concept is still largely understudied in the design and HCI literature (with very few rare exceptions, such as this paper)
Is the approach of ‘naming and shaming’ enough to shield us from dark UX, or do we need to legislate against the psychological tricks of UX design?
And most importantly, how can we work together to ensure that future generations of UX designers and practitioners do NOT become complicit in manipulative or unreasonably persuasive UX practices?
Comprehensive ethics education in design is critical but so is the shift towards ‘light patterns of UX’ that champion clarity, consent, empathy and honesty.
So, are there any examples of light patterns in UX out there?