6 October 2017
Willem Duijvelshoff
Willem Duijvelshoff

Dark Patterns

Short term conversion at the expense of long term loyalty

The UX sector has a widespread tradition of critiquing fellow UX designers. Forums and blogs are filled with voices describing everything that is dysfunctional about the online products and services we use. Oftentimes, these critiques are targeted at the lack of conscious decision making of the designer in charge, but what if a design is consciously misleading? In this case, it is not the incompetency of the designer that makes the design unfortunate, but the designer is now willingly using design methodologies to trick users into taking actions, making use of so-called dark patterns. Designers might be tempted to use these patterns to generate short term conversion or engagement, but using them carries the risk of losing long term user loyalty.

Here it is useful to distinguish UI patterns from persuasive patterns. The former refers to the recurring patterns we encounter when using software, think of patterns like breadcrumbs or on-boarding flows. Persuasive patterns on the other hand refer to a more abstract type of pattern. An example of this is the use of storytelling or reciprocity to persuade users to perform an action. Both of these types of patterns have the danger of turning into dark patterns. Making this distinction is important in order to grasp that the misleading effects of dark patterns can play a role on multiple levels, from the interface to an overarching strategy (or both at the same time).

Design for time well spent

When referring to dark patterns, one taps into a wider discussion about design ethics. Tristan Harris – a former design ethicist at Google – gives his view on the ways designers can design in more ethically responsible ways, Harris advocates for the design philosophy of ‘design for time well spent’. He makes his point by showing how Facebook could prompt users in more honest ways by displaying the time cost a certain action could take, as opposed to persuading the user to indulge in mindless scrolling.

Time well spent

It is the task of designers to find balance between progressing the goals of the business, and progressing the goals of the user. A prominent risk of using dark patterns is that once the user becomes aware of misleading practices it can be harmful for the brand of the company at hand, potentially damaging the business goals on the longer term. In order to avoid using patterns that are misleading, designers should be able to identify them. So what does a dark pattern exactly entail?

The definition of dark

Design for persuasion is a commonly used set of design methods grounded in psychology. It consists of principles, methods, techniques and tools that help designers persuade users to take actions. In the 80’s the psychologist Robert Cialdini played an important role in uncovering the psychological mechanisms of persuasion, and ultimately the concept also found its way into the world of UX design. Actions can range from persuading users to buy a book, to motivating them to exercise more frequently. The difference between persuasion and using dark patterns is the difference between persuading and misleading, and there can be a blurry line between the two. For that reason, there are many ‘shades of dark’ when one talks about dark patterns. Let’s look at a few examples in order to get a better grasp of the concept.

Case studies

Some patterns are obviously dubious, but there are numerous more subtle ways to mislead. Darkpatterns.org identifies a “>collection of different types of dark patterns. At the same time, other articles define dark patterns as being part of an overarching company strategy.

Bait and switch

An example of a rather evident dark pattern is Microsoft’s approach to luring people into upgrading to a newer version of their software. The darkpatterns.org website describes the problem with the pop-up: “During 2016, users of earlier versions of windows where shown pop-up windows similar to that pictured above. As the year progressed, Microsoft became increasingly aggressive with the pop-ups. They started as an honest, optional call to action, but became increasingly deceptive.”

Windows 10

Microsoft changed the meaning of the “X” close button, and now it meant “Yes, I do want to upgrade my computer to Windows 10”. This obviously deceiving practice caused a storm of public outrage on social media.

False urgency at Booking

Dark patterns can be apparent in multiple small aspects of the interface, Booking.com for example pushes users by generating a feeling of urgency, using prompts like: “In high demand – only 3 rooms left on our site!” “33 other people looking now”. In this example, the distinction between persuasion and manipulation already becomes fuzzier.


Uber’s dark persuasion

Recently Uber was also accused of using dark patterns to incentivize their drivers to drive more and longer. In this context, the perceived manipulations refer to the use of dark patterns on the level of features of the app. “Uber […] uses psychological tricks. These range from presenting unworked time or areas as financial losses rather than potential gains, to placing drivers into a Netflix binge-style loop in which the next ride is queued up before the last one ends.” In this instance, the use of dark patterns is somewhat harder to point out, since it might be less obvious in specific buttons or interactions. In this case, the nudging and manipulating is part of a bigger business strategy. Uber is a good example of how these practices can start sticking to a brand and negatively impact their reputation as a whole, the company has been widely criticized for the way it treats its drivers, as well as the role the company plays within the wider trend of the sharing economy. Their use of dark patterns plays a significant role in this critique.

Concluding remarks

The term dark pattern is a rather widely definable concept: an individual button can be slightly misleading, or a whole company’s business strategy can be based on gaming their users. At the same time, the elusive nature of the concept doesn’t make the concept irrelevant. The point is that the existence of the concept stimulates designers to think about the repercussions of using certain patterns.

This ties into the importance of the ethical awareness for designers Mike Monteiro observes, he states: “The work you bring into the world is your legacy. It will outlive you. And it will speak for you. We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we love the cleverness of our ideas.” Creating an authentic user experience that respects the users’ time and autonomy has more potential to create long term loyalty. Design is not a neutral practice, and even though ‘dark’ is hard to define, it is worthwhile considering design decisions with the concept in mind.

It is the designer’s task to defend the user’s interests. Recognizing dark patterns and developing a personal compass for the concept helps protecting users from unwanted outcomes. Making clear to non-designers that dark patterns carry the risk of damaging the reputation of the organization in the long term, can help communicating the relevance of avoiding the use of them altogether.

About the author

Willem Duijvelshoff (/willem-duijvelshoff) is interaction designer at Informaat who loves crafting usable and delightful interfaces. He has a special interest in what makes a design emotionally attractive or persuasive, and how this is grounded in human psychology.

Design (23), User experience (53)