In the last post, we explored how different devices (mobiles, tablets and desktops) influence our online behaviour…
This month, we thought we’d round things off by exploring the various sneaky ways in which online shops manipulate us into buying things we really don’t need.
Image credit: Wired.com
Bad design: accidental or intentional?
Now, user interface design is a powerful tool for drawing in new customers and delighting existing ones…
But, as we all know, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, and when UI and UX designers are incentivised to aim for short term profits over long term gains, the very KPIs by which we measure success can actually result in the design of systems that end up disempowering the user.
We’ve all come across bad interface designs; whether they’ve been brought about by accident, ignorance, lack of resources or bad trade-offs, the internet is awash with them.
Dark patterns, however, are inherently distinct from bad design because they are purposefully, covertly engineered to take advantage of psychological insights, with the aim of manipulating the behaviour of users. Defined as user interfaces that ‘have been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things that are not in their interest’ (Dr Harry Brignull), dark patterns intentionally create a negative experience for the user, and are therefore not just harmful, but also unethical.
As Zagal, Björk and Lewis put it, there is a ‘subtle difference between ‘Bad Design’ and ‘Designing for Bad’’ depending on ‘whether a design is an honest mistake with unintended results, or if its outcomes were intended’.
Dark Patterns in action: Ryanair’s illegal misdirection
One dark pattern (of many) that you may be familiar with, used to be found lurking in the checkout forms of Ryanair’s flight booking process. In this online environment where details matter and stress is high, you’d be ‘invited’ to book travel insurance with your flight.
Only there was a catch.
The accompanying drop down menu would provide an enormously long list of countries, in which the option to decline insurance would be nestled between Denmark and Finland. Now, the last time I checked, ‘Don’t Insure Me’ wasn’t a member state of the EU – and that’s exactly why Ryanair intentionally positioned it there.
Known as misdirection, this dark pattern refers to the practice of purposefully hiding relevant information among non-relevant information to trick users into accidentally taking an action they don’t want.
What’s worse, is that if (like everyone else) you had the misfortune of missing this option because you weren’t consciously looking for it, you’d then be served a frustrating error message insisting that you select an insurance option. Gah!
New EU laws now in play
Since this now familiar example was outed as a blatant example of dark UI practices, the EU updated the European Consumer Rights Directive in 2014 and banned some of the most common dark patterns used by e-commerce sites.
The main intention was to prevent additional items and services being added to a basket by default – but according to expert Heather Burns, many companies are still flouting the law.
With regards to this particular dark pattern used by Ryanair, she explains that ‘it is a fair bet to say that the company whose conduct led to this law being created in the first place is going to throw out quite a few examples of noncompliant conduct. In this example, they are still adding the additional payment by default, leaving the consumer to manually opt-out of it. That’s wrong.’
On the plus side, Heather also states that because a failure to comply cancels the transaction, ‘you can get your money back and keep the goods. If the sale was for a service or a digital download, the contract is cancelled and no further payments are due.’
Pointing out the villains…
In 2010 Dr Harry Brignull, the British UX designer who came up with the term dark patterns, started to collect examples of dark patterns used online to publicly humiliate the companies responsible.
His goal in doing so was to educate consumers, provide designers with ‘ammunition to refuse unethical requests by (y)our clients’, and to publicly shame companies that do use them so as to make dark patterns less appealing.
Harry’s efforts were met with success, and several companies such as Audible and The Ladders (UK) changed their User Interfaces in response to the public criticism by the darkpatterns.org community. As you can probably guess, Ryanair refuted all claims and referred to their entry on Dark Patterns as an ‘utter load of rubbish’.
But these diverse reactions point to the core problem with dark patterns: for companies who don’t care about their customers or client relationships, the immediate benefits of employing dark patterns outweigh the long-term damage of doing so.
The pull (and cost) of the dark side
In the eyes of metric-driven companies with a competitive working climate and a focus on short-term business results, it’s easy to see how dark patterns can be appealing.
Since dark patterns tend to fare better in A/B testing because they manipulate users into the desired behaviour (Brignull, 2011), this quantitative feedback makes it easy for designers to ignore the fact that A/B testing provides no feedback about varying degree of honesty and the long-term effects of the interfaces.
What’s perhaps worse, is that the environment in which designers make these design decisions is shaped by a lack of public discourse around the issue.
Since there are rarely any negative consequences for those who use dark patterns (and a multitude of prominent examples of dark patterns in use), it’s easy for designers to follow the example of their peers and design an interface that benefits their company at the expense of their users.
It’s also easy to forget that the use of dark patterns can lead to serious long-term costs. While we might all have been caught out by a dark pattern once or twice, I’m sure I’m not alone in having screen-grabbed the offending interaction and furiously tweeted at the culprit in the attempt to warn others and call out bad behaviour. In some instances, I’ve even received an immediate official apology.
But the bottom line is that whatever conversation ensues, unethical interfaces fundamentally erode trust, which makes it:
- Much less likely that users will engage with that company again, and
- Much more likely that they’ll tell all their mates to avoid said company like the plague
It’s perhaps these negative outcomes (alongside, one hopes, a desire to act ethically) that has motivated some companies to make an effort to boost their revenue without resorting to dark patterns.
So what does this mean for you?
As an individual, knowing about these patterns can give you a valuable defense against the dark arts, and prevent you from falling prey to these pernicious practices. If you’re curious to take the challenge, cast an eye over the current services you use and count how many dark patterns you can find. You can even submit them to darkpatterns.org and spread the word.
As a UI or UX designer, you can help to us tackle one of the biggest problems that gives rise to dark patterns: the lack of a unified code of ethics for the field, that defines what professional standards all designers should adhere to (similar to the Hippocratic Oath).
This discussion matters because it is not always easy to tell bad design and unethical design apart, and because a truly neutral choice for the user is becoming increasingly hard to come by. In some cases, nudging a customer into a certain direction can be in their own interest (what I would call facilitation), whereas in others it makes it harder for them to reach their goal (manipulation).
As I outline in many of the talks I give, the difference between an honest design and a dark pattern often boils down to its intention: does it aim to manipulate the user, or to facilitate his or her own decision making process? Brignull points out that Jacob Nielsen’s (1995) ten usability heuristics can serve as a starting point for this discussion, particularly with their demands for high visibility of system status (you know what the system is currently doing), for a match between the language of the system and the real world, and for user control and freedom to make decisions in his own interest.
Paul Brooks (2012) proposes seven guidelines to combine business interests with ethical design, including making the link between good UX and profitability, getting to know the user and working with their goals rather than against them, and using measurements beyond the conversion rate (such as the share of returning users, willingness to recommend the service or qualitative feedback). As an easy to use alternative to a formalised code of ethics, during your next design process you can ask yourself whether you are:
- Enabling your users to achieve their goals
- Coercing them to do something other than achieve their own goals and
- Designing experiences for the mutual benefit of your customer and your business
If you are asked to design an interface that fails this test, you can check out the negative consequences mentioned on darkpatterns.org and propose an alternative honest design. For more practical advice on how to improve interfaces to honour customers’ interests, you can check out Jennifer Winter (2015).
As a company, you can question whether your interface embodies your company values. If your interfaces fail to convey what your beliefs and goals are as an organisation, ask yourself how you can change your culture in a way that makes it possible to act ethically.
How can you:
- Enable designers to refuse unethical requests?
- Use diverse measurements to capture the long-term effects of your interfaces alongside the short-term effects?
- Gather not only quantitative feedback about sales, but also qualitative feedback about reputation, long-term customer relationship and trust?
If you want to dive deeper…
Guardian Tech Weekly: Dark Patterns and Ada Lovelace
Dr Harry Brignull: The slippery slope
Product Psychology: Taking it too far – when persuasion becomes deception
UX Booth: Has the recession taken your experience to the dark side?