Dark Patterns: A dangerous addiction for brands

dark-patterns_analogfolkBy Neil Dawson

Last year LinkedIn paid $13 million to settle a lawsuit which accused them of spamming the contacts of their users. The recipients didn’t even have a profile on the site. How could that be? Starting in the sign up form, LinkedIn used a variety of techniques to convince users to give access to their contacts’ email addresses, ostensibly to suggest connections with people they knew. By including contacts who didn’t yet have a profile in the list of suggested connections, LinkedIn sneakily got permission to send those irritating email invitations. Misdirection kept most users from knowing what they allowed to happen.

These techniques are known as dark patterns. They’re used to trick people into doing things - things they wouldn’t do if they understood the true outcome. They’re carefully designed to manipulate people by taking advantage of quirks of the human mind. The outcome could be seemingly harmless, like unwittingly subscribing to a newsletter, or really questionable, like adding extra charges to a customer’s order without their knowledge.

Dark patterns are tempting to businesses because they’re a quick route to results, but it’s shortsighted to use deception to meet short-term goals when you should be building a trustworthy brand for long-term success.

To avoid and eliminate dark patterns we have to identify them. Here are some questions to help you distinguish an honest, persuasive method from a deceptive dark pattern.

Was it deliberate?

Hanlon’s Razor is a tongue-in-cheek observation that unpleasant situations are usually the result of thoughtlessness, rather than a deliberate attempt to ruin your day. First ask yourself if the technique was used deliberately. If it seems unintentional, you might be experiencing an anti-pattern: a dark pattern used in error.

Have I been misinformed?

The 7th principle of persuasive technology design states that “persuasive technologies must not misinform in order to achieve their persuasive end.” If the creators have used ambiguity to hide meaning, or omitted crucial information outright, that’s deception.

Did the deception improve my experience?

Misinformation is usually a bad sign, but a bit of fibbing is forgivable if it’s for a good cause. Dan Turner found that a placebo route drawn between the pick-up and drop-off points in a ride sharing app reassured users, even though it was almost definitely wrong. A good white lie will make the user more effective, perhaps by reducing distraction, confusion, or the number of steps.

Does the designer benefit more than me?

Identifying the people who benefit from the technique, and who benefits most, can give you some insight into the motivation of the creator. Chris Nodder described these four categories of design:

  • Charitable design benefits society above all others
  • Motivational design benefits the user above all others
  • Commercial design benefits the creator and the user equally
  • Evil design benefits the creator above all others

If the creators are getting significantly more out of the exchange than the user, they have only their own interests at heart - their work falls into the evil category.

When you encounter a suspicious interaction, consider these questions to guide your thinking, and root out dark patterns before they do their damage.

In our talk at SXSW 2016, Dark Times for Dark Patterns, I’ll be exploring this topic more with Cristina Viganò of Cyber-Duck. We’ll review some common dark patterns, suggest ethical alternatives, and argue that these deceptive practices can hurt your brand.