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Issue № 338

Dark Patterns: Deception vs. Honesty in UI Design

by Published in Interaction Design, Usability · 20 Comments

We might not like to admit it but deception is deeply entwined with life on this planet. Insects evolved to use it, animals employ it in their behavior, and of course, we humans use it to manipulate, control, and profit from each other. With this in mind it’s no surprise that deception appears in various guises in user interfaces on the web today. What is surprising, though, is that up until recently it was something web designers never talked about. There was no terminology, no design patterns, and no real recognition of it as a phenomenon at all. If it wasn’t a taboo it certainly felt like one.

To fill the gap, darkpatterns.org was created in August 2010: a pattern library with the specific goal of naming and shaming deceptive user interfaces (aka “dark patterns”) and the companies that use them. This article will provide you with a brief overview of the library and some specific examples of dark patterns in use today.

If we put aside our moral quibbles let’s put ourselves in the shoes of an evil web designer for a moment. How can we take advantage of our customers in the most effective manner? First off, subtlety is our friend. For example, if our site is going to hit users with hidden costs in the checkout process, we’ll be more effective if we add relatively small costs. If we add $100 to a $20 purchase, the customer will most likely notice and drop out. We’d be much better off adding just a few dollars as some sort of “order processing fee.” Even if customers notice this, they probably won’t bother dropping out as the cost is too small to justify going through the checkout process on another site. This is why deceptive user interfaces are so common on the web—in isolation they’re usually so small that each one is barely annoying enough for people to do anything about them.

Let’s continue a while as evil web designers: perhaps you’ve never thought about it before but all of the guidelines, principles, and methods that ethical designers use to design usable websites can be easily subverted to benefit business owners at the expense of users. It’s actually quite simple to take our understanding of human psychology and flip it over to the dark side. Let’s look at some examples:

Psychological Insight Applied Honestly (benefits users) Applied Deceptively (benefits business)
“We don’t read pages. We scan them” —Steve Krug Aid rapid comprehension: ensure key content is shown in headings, subheadings (etc), using a strong visual hierarchy. Hide key information: Bury facts within paragraphs of text, so some users will proceed without fully understanding the transaction.
“People tend to stick to the defaults” —Jakob Nielsen Prevent mistakes: Default to the option that’s safest for the user. In important contexts, don’t use defaults and require the user to make an explicit choice. Benefit from mistakes: Ensure default options benefit the business, even if this means some users convert without meaning to.
“People will do things that they see other people are doing” —Robert Cialdini Show unedited feedback: Allow real customers to share their experiences, so they can make accurate pre-purchase evaluations. Bury negative feedback: Hand-pick positive feedback and display it prominently. Bury negative feedback so it is hard to find.

“But it tests well!”

Dark patterns tend to perform very well in A/B and multivariate tests simply because a design that tricks users into doing something is likely to achieve more conversions than one that allows users to make an informed decision. As an exercise, take a look at the three examples below. Each takes a different approach to eliciting users’ marketing preferences. Which do you think would win an A/B test by achieving the most marketing opt-ins? And which do you think is the most ethical from a user’s point of view?

Fig. 1

Fig. 1: Which example do you think might perform best in an A/B test?

Example A is basically honest. Checkboxes are opt-in with clear labels. If the user happens to ignore the area completely, they will not be signed up to any marketing messages. Although this is kind to users as it avoids accidental opt-ins, it is also bad for business as conversion rates will be relatively low. Example C is another honest interface: a user cannot submit the form without selecting an answer so they are forced to make an explicit decision.

On the other hand, Example B is quite devious, and because of this it is likely to win in A/B tests. Double negatives are used in the first checkbox label but not in the second, which will confuse some users. Those who ignore both the checkboxes will unknowingly give some marketing permissions, while those who zealously tick both checkboxes will also end up giving some marketing permissions. In other words, this kind of trick question is like a trammel net used in fishing, which uses different layers to entangle prey in different ways.

As you can see, blinkered and over-zealous A/B testing may actually be causing the web to evolve toward dark patterns. The lesson here is that you should never rely on a single method and a single metric to understand your customers. Their opinions, feelings, and trust in your company are far more broad ranging than their behavior in a single split-second on your website.

If used properly good old-fashioned face-to-face usability testing can provide a great antidote. A highlight video reel containing footage of customers swearing about your website can make even the most hard-headed CEO sit forward and listen. However, usability testing can be quite expensive and typically delivers qualitative data. A quant-centric company is unlikely to change its spots overnight. Let’s take a look at another example.

Forced Continuity: rolling over from free to paid plans

One of the biggest problems with the freemium business model is the low conversion rate from free to paying customers. Many businesses deal with this problem by offering free trials that require credit card details upfront, which automatically transition users to a paid plan after a set time. This forced continuity and can be applied both ethically and unethically, with many shades of gray.

At the most honest and user-centered end of the scale, we have Apple’s MobileMe. When signing up, the service makes it extremely clear what you are getting into as a customer (Fig. 2, below). It doesn’t hide anything in small print or complex wording. Then, when you’re seven days away from transitioning to the paid plan, they email you a reminder of what is about to happen. In other words, they couldn’t make it any clearer at any stage of the process.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2: The explanation at the top of the credit card form of MobileMe.com is very prominent and clearly worded.

Let’s move down the scale to a slightly more questionable approach. One well known DVD rental company gives great upfront messaging about the rollover from a free to paid plan—just like Apple does with MobileMe—but they don’t send out reminder emails. This means that some customers will inevitably forget what they agreed to and find themselves charged monthly, only noticing when they check their credit card bill. Does omitting reminder emails make this UI less honest?

This isn’t an easy question to answer. The costs associated with mailing physical objects around the country are structured very differently to an online service. We know for a fact that reminder emails will reduce the conversion from a free to paid plan, and if their margins are thin, this could make the free trial model loss-making and therefore unviable.

Now, maybe you’re thinking that this kind of ethical hand-wringing is somewhat naive. Of course there will always be tension between businesses and their customers. Both have self-interests—a sustainable relationship is only created when a balance is achieved between the two. Classic economic theory says that market forces will provide a self-righting mechanism, and that customers will shop elsewhere if a business does not provide a compelling service. However, this theory also assumes people behave with a perfect knowledge of all economic opportunities and attributes (a.k.a “Homo Economicus”) a point of view that is widely refuted by behavioral economists. If a business is successful at deceiving some of its customers in a subtle manner, the majority of customers will not know or care, so they will have no reason to shop elsewhere.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3: The continuum from honest interfaces to dark patterns.

Now let’s look at the least honest end of the scale. One well known credit rating service uses forced continuity in a very deceptive manner. As well as not sending a reminder, they use some very cunningly written copy on the credit card form (Fig. 4, below). As we all know, people tend to start reading at the beginning of a piece of text and as they advance, an increasing percentage of people give up and do not read to the end. This common reading behavior is the reason why the inverted pyramid style was invented: to assist readers with a concise and accurate summary up front. As you can see below, the designers of this website have applied this understanding of human reading behavior to nefarious ends.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4: Black hat copywriting: this text has been purposefully crafted to mislead.

If you only read the question and the first line of the response the copy appears to be saying one thing—that the only reason you are being asked for your credit card details is to allow identity verification, as part of the credit checking process. But, if you read all of the text word for word, you will see it actually means the opposite—that your credit card details are being taken to bill you on a monthly basis.

What’s clever here is that the level of deception is very subtle. Although it’s likely to boost their conversion rates, it also steers clear of any legal issues.

Weaning a business from dark patterns

Profit is sweet, even if it comes from deception. —Sophocles

Some businesses implement dark patterns by mistake or misadventure. The tricky problem for them is that they can become accustomed to the resultant revenue, and unlikely to want to turn the tap off. Nobody wants to be the manager who caused profits to drop overnight because of the “improvements” they made to the website.

However it can be done. Until mid-2010, Expedia-owned travel site hotels.com hid costs from the user until the last moment in the checkout process (e.g., “extra guest charges,” “taxes and fees,” etc.)—which made the site look like it was offering cheaper deals than it really was. In late 2010, they redesigned the site to use a more honest interface which clearly states full prices up front on search results pages. Since then, they have won numerous awards for customer service: including the TUV certificate in Germany for safer shopping, and the best online site in Denmark, and they were voted top in the ‘Service’ and ‘Customer Friendly Website’ categories by the German Institute of Service Quality in January 2011.

Removing dark patterns from any site involves a leap of faith. A company has to shift from a short-term quantitative measurement mindset to one that values relatively slow, steady growth of “warm fuzzy” qualitative things like brand image, credibility, and trust. This kind of cultural shift is hard to do, which partially explains the reason why dark patterns tend to stick around once deployed.

What next?

Some people have suggested that we need more regulation around dark patterns, but this would be tricky as there are so many potential work-arounds. For now darkpatterns.org seems to be making some progress. Just a few months ago, one community member called out audible.com for using forced continuity in their billing process. (Customers attempting to buy a single audio book were given a monthly billed membership without them knowing.) Within days, Audible.com replied on the wiki, stating:

When we heard that some listeners have found our check-out process less than clear, we took it upon ourselves to refine the wording of our offers and clarify our recurring billing practices. [...] We invite the Dark Patterns community…to review our changes.

Sure enough, the new version of their site did away with the offending dark patterns and has been well received. This is a great example of how a grass-roots wiki can have a positive effect.

The way a company reacts after being outed speaks volumes about its real intentions. At least now we have a precedent for exposing them and demanding change: companies determined to use dark patterns will have to factor in the cost of negative PR. With continued pressure from the design community we can make a difference.

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