#26: Dark Patterns

A handy guide to doing evil on the web

Reading time: 2 minutes

A user-interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things..they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.

Harry Birgnall, UX Designer

This is an ad for Brunch - an Irish institution. Layers of vanilla and strawberry ice-cream are generously coated in flaky biscuit crumbs - it’s the source of many perfect childhood memories.

In recent years however, something's gone horribly awry at Brunch HQ. And not by accident, I suspect.

The advertisement above promises one thing, but the reality, as you can see from the image below, delivers another. 

The manufacturer took a lot of flak for their baldy Brunches. And deservedly so!

BrunchGate is an analog example of a term used in the online world, to describe a carefully crafted visual cue, designed to trick you.

It’s called a Dark Pattern.

In order to get more sales or subscriptions, some companies use dark patterns to try and frustrate, shame, or manipulate you into doing things online, you don’t want to do.

There are many different types of dark patterns, some with eclectic names like Roach Motel and Privacy Zuckering.

But here are three of the most pernicious examples:

#1 Confirm-shaming

Imagine for a moment, you’re browsing a clothing website looking to buy a new t-shirt, when an overlay pops up inviting you to sign up to the company newsletter.

You’re presented with two options. 

You can either:

a) enter your email address

Or

b) declare no, you’re not into "saving money”

You’ve probably experienced this kind of “confirm-shaming" before - a manipulative psychological technique designed to guilt you into taking an action you may not want to take.

No doubt, it’s not the only piece of deceitful design you’ve encountered browsing the web:

#2 Misdirection

Picture yourself further along in the ordering process. You’re about to press “buy now” on the perfect item, when your flat mate arrives home with a gift for you - a new t-shirt; perfect fit and everything!

As you try to cancel the order, you’re presented with this tangle-twister:

Do you press cancel to cancel or cancel to continue?

As with the previous example, this method is an attempt to confuse, in order to keep you stuck inside a service.

But aside from being stuck, there are times when you can be snared:

#3 Bait And Switch

Having wrangled your way back to the homepage, a button alerts you to the offer of a free accessory - the perfect match to your new t-shirt.

It’s free of course - you just need to provide your credit card details first. The only trouble with this scenario, is it’s deliberately misleading. Most people scan read websites so the true cost of this freebie, is likely to be missed.

UX Design was born out of a need to improve people’s experience with products and services online. Sadly, some designers abuse this responsibility to do evil, in service to their employer's bottom line.

In too many cases, the user serves the technology, when it should be the other way around.

In the long term, this is incredibly damaging to a company’s credibility. As internet users become more savvy to these duplicitous techniques, trust will inevitably vanish, and previously popular online platforms and products will be abandoned to more ethically minded alternatives.

All things considered, designers have a responsibility be transparent in their design. They must be clear in their intentions, honest in their actions and always free of dark patterns.