Dark Patterns

Posted by on Aug 27, 2011

We’ve all been there. You’re on a website attempting to book a flight, buy a gift or post a comment and as you proceed to the last step you notice a strange box checked or something extra in your cart. You don’t remember selecting “flight insurance”, “rush processing” or “share publicly” but nevertheless, there it is. You don’t know how it got there, but you’re glad you noticed it before clicking submit.

There’s a good chance that you just experienced a Dark Pattern.

A Dark Pattern is a user interface that is designed to trick people. 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. It can be as simple as pre-selecting an option for the user and can be as complicated as not allowing a user to cancel their service or unsubscribe.

This isn’t a new concept. I’m sure we all remember the days of CD subscription services that were a pain to cancel or being opt-ed into linebacker phone line protection after a misleading 3 minute telemarketing call from the phone company. What makes Dark Patterns different is that they happen in a world that is built on speed and efficiency.

The web has made it easy for people to do almost anything in the span of a coffee break, this leads to an expectation that everything we do online should happen fast. This expectation has created a generation of users who read and interact by skimming. When you come to a new site or a form how often do you read every word on the page? Usually we’ll read the first headline or the introduction text and then start interacting. Wether that is filling out a form, adding items to the cart or posting a comment/picture/status update. This behavior is amplified when a user is presented with a familiar interface on an unfamiliar site. In those circumstances a user will gravitate towards the interaction that they are comfortable with, which once again leads to a form submission, cart add or comment post in the blink of an eye.

Companies that implement a Dark Pattern into their interface are counting on this kind of behavior and they are taking advantage of it to further their business goals. Businesses may look at these tactics as insurance that their goals will be met, but in reality the risk vs reward is far to great. In our increasingly social world the presence of a Dark Pattern can quickly go from minor user annoyance to PR disaster.
(Think of Facebook’s 2010 privacy issues: http://hy-c.me/qjjxI6 or LinkedIn’s recent “Social Ads” mistake: http://hy-c.me/o64Lvx)

Even though this practice can mean good things for their bottom line or their campaign metrics it breaks the first rule of web interaction: Users come first. Anyone can build a tricky interface, but it takes skill and careful consideration to build a process that meets the needs of both the user and the business.

In 2010 UX expert Harry Brignull created a presentation aimed at brand owners to help introduce them to this concept online. It’s about 30 minutes long but well worth the time if you are interested in the subject. (http://hy-c.me/n9FXrT)
In early 2010 he also created a site to catalog examples of Dark Patterns found out on the web. (http://wiki.darkpatterns.org/Home) Since the site launched hundreds of examples have been posted from companies big and small and 15 different types of patterns have been identified.