Good design must always avoid being overcomplicated. Things should be straightforward and simple to understand as the audience expects them. This principle is particularly important when it comes to the Internet; most people don’t read the majority of text on web pages and quickly form interpretations from visual cues. Content producers can use this concept to create material that allows people to easily get the results they want.
But just as easily as design can be established with helpful intentions, it can also be used to deliberately mislead. Internet users have noted a disturbing increase in the latter in recent years, and the phenomenon of malicious design was dubbed “dark patterns.” They can now be found on websites, apps, and even in programs that don’t utilize the Internet.
Here’s an example:
Doesn’t the affirmative option usually come first in dialog boxes? And aren’t we used to seeing green to indicate the positive response and red as the negative? There’s an obvious element of deception here. This is just a mockup, and it’s pretty egregious, so you may be thinking you’d never fall for something like this. And indeed, it’s not all that hard to notice what’s amiss with this image, especially once it’s been pointed out.
Unfortunately, though, there are much subtler forms of dark patterns intended to trick you into parting with your money or personal data. Have you ever seen a button saying “Click here to download” but instead takes you to a page where you have to sign up for an account before you can actually download the requested file? How about when you’re purchasing movie tickets online and you see one price in your shopping cart, but when you go to check out, an unexpected “convenience fee” has been tacked on? Or, perhaps worst of all, when you sign up for a free 30-day trial for a service, but you’re never notified when that time runs out and your credit card is automatically charged? All of those fall into the dark patterns category.
Dark patterns are a combination of design choice and psychological expectation. While the information that reveals what undesired result to come is almost certainly tucked somewhere in the interface, you won’t see it without hunting for it. It could be hidden in a large block of tiny text, written in confusing, long-winded words, or only accessible after clicking through several other pages. Misdirection, rather than outright lying, is what’s going on here.
We call this “confirmshaming.” They’re trying to embarrass you into signing up for an email newsletter by implying you’re stupid if you don’t want to receive it.
Yes means no? The designer expects you to only see “Yes” and think you’re avoiding signing up by leaving it unchecked, when the opposite is actually occurring.
Having random fees added to your cart is definitely not a “convenience.”
Those are just a few of the types of dark patterns you can encounter in the wild. The foremost website on this topic, DarkPatterns.org, has identified 12 different categories, and they have further examples. You can also take a look at the #DarkPatterns and #DarkPattern hashtags, where additional instances and interesting discussions can be found.
So, what can we do about dark patterns? Are they against the law? Well, the businesses who use them would argue that complaining about them is akin to failing to read the fine print. The facts were there, you just didn’t notice them – although, of course, you weren’t meant to. There is one example of a successful lawsuit, which was brought against LinkedIn after they allegedly abused people’s email contacts to send dozens of messages, unwanted by both receivers and those who had supposedly agreed to have them sent out. LinkedIn tried to get the case thrown out of court, but eventually acceded to settling for $13 million. This was a class action suit, meaning that a large group of people got together under one representative to sue LinkedIn. In other words, if enough people are upset and are willing to do something about it, companies don’t have much of a choice but to respond.
For now, though, the best thing you can do is be vigilant. Read text carefully, because the designers who employ dark patterns are counting on you not taking that step. Anytime you agree to something, know what it is – I’m not saying you have to read through the entire Terms and Conditions, but do take those few extra minutes to find out exactly what data (or amount of money) you’ll be handing over and for what purpose.