The toxic influence of dark patterns on our digital experiences
In the digital world, interfaces specifically designed to trap users are known as ‘dark patterns’. Their designers aim to trick users into triggering involuntary actions that serve the interests of the owner. The many examples of this include forcing users to sign up to a newsletter, tricking them into subscribing to a service and slyly adding items to their baskets.
Positive online experiences are built on easy, pleasant and seamless interactions. They are designed to satisfy both users and the business in equal measure. Designers rely on a good knowledge of human behavior and the cognitive sciences. However, this knowledge can also be used to manipulate users via dark patterns.
The most common examples
1 – Fake urgency
This technique aims to speed up the transformation of baskets into purchases by leading consumers to believe that they must act fast to avoid missing out on a good deal. This can take several forms:
A highly visible countdown showing time remaining before the end of an offer. What’s more, on some e-commerce websites, the expiry of the special offer indicated by the countdown is false.
Alarming statements about the availability of a tourism product. ‘Only one room left in this hotel’ or ‘Caution: demand for this camp site is high during this period’ are the types of exaggerated, or sometimes simply untrue, messages used to force users’ hands.
Special offers with a vague expiry date. Statements such as ‘Time-limited offer’, with no indication of the duration, sow doubt in users’ minds, creating fear of missing out on a “good deal”.
2 – Bait and switch
This dark pattern involves switching an action in an interface, which does not produce the desired result for the user, such as a confirmation rather than a cancellation, or purchasing an order instead of simply checking a basket.
The idea is to use psychological conditioning based on a visual habit, such as a specific color or position on the screen. Examples of this dark pattern can be found in some free mobile games.
Once the game loads up, users tap a large button to start playing. If they lose, they can use credit to play again (they are given free credit every day) by tapping the same button. If they run out of credit, they need to purchase more to continue playing. At this stage, the interface designers simply switched the label on the button from ‘Replay’ to ‘Purchase’, taking players who tap again as a reflex directly to the shop. Users are conditioned to expect a result from a given action. Designers then simply change the result at the desired moment by switching the label.
3 – Confirmshaming
This practice involves adding negative connotations to the wording for actions that the designer does not want to be taken (such as unsubscribing or abandoning a basket). Rather than simply using ‘Confirm’ or ‘Approve’, confirmation messages are worded to induce guilt.
One of the most well-known examples remains Amazon, which offers users the choice to join Amazon Prime several times. Instead of something simple like ‘No thanks’, the opt-out is worded ‘No thanks, I don’t want Unlimited One-Day Delivery’.
Other examples of confirmshaming encountered on the web:
When I declined to register in order to download a gardening guide for beginners: ‘No thanks, I’m already an expert gardener’
When I declined to enter my email address to get a discount on an order: ‘No thanks, saving money isn’t my thing. ’
In this type of dark pattern, the action itself is not hijacked; instead, wordings are designed to induce a certain reaction from the user.
Dark patterns can affect everyone, but they are particularly effective on individuals with psychological troubles. The best defense remains being able to identify and then avoid them.
These are the weaknesses that dark patterns play on:
Guilt, by choosing a particular wording for an action that causes the user to doubt their initial choice (see above example of confirmshaming). This can have a negative effect on self-image and even lead someone to doubt their own personality.
Lack of motivation, by designing complex or time-consuming processes that wear the user down and lead them to abandon their action. This can be seen in certain unsubscription processes, for example, where several tedious steps are required.
Impulsiveness, by leading the user to think that they must act fast. Dark patterns can put the user under pressure so they act before carefully considering their options (see above example of fake urgency).
Anxiety is one of the most frequently exploited weaknesses by dark patterns. This approach involves the use of worrying messages (such as the anxiety-inducing alerts of certain anti-virus programs) or unnecessarily difficult steps (such as requiring users to make a telephone call to unsubscribe).
Psychological conditioning, as in the bait-and-switch approach described above. Through a repeated action involving a prominent part of the interface (such as a colorful button), the user makes a mental association between it and an action.
Building efficient and user-friendly interfaces
The same principles can be used to encourage positive engagement from the user, via ethical use of persuasion techniques, whereas dark patterns misuse the cognitive sciences with the sole aim of achieving a business goal, at any cost.
According to the behavioral model created by Professor Fogg of Stanford University, a behavior is triggered if the user has a sufficient level of motivation and ability. Put simply, they must have the desire (motivation) and practical knowledge (ability) to perform the action.
Motivation can be achieved through attractiveness, benefits or need for a brand or product. For this, often all that is needed is clear, comprehensive and honest communication. For example, many fitness apps now suggest small physical challenges (walk 6000 steps today, do 20 press-ups, etc.) in the form of virtual badges. The challenges increase in difficulty over time. This non-guilt-inducing and gradual approach boosts motivation.
Ability can be acquired naturally if the interface is user friendly and instinctive to use. Pleasant design, easy navigation and features designed with user comfort in mind produce a smoother experience and promote perceived well-being. The aim here is to remove any fears related to use itself.
UX is a changing discipline that is built on users. It can be practiced on the dark side, by playing on fears and weaknesses for purely commercial aims, or on the light side, by respecting users’ expectations and desires in a positive manner. Designers of digital systems have great power and, therefore, great responsibility. It is up to them to choose which path to take.