DARK PATTERNS – Trick or Treat??

Have you ever subscribed to any email subscription unintentionally, downloaded software by chance, or bought one item which you never wanted but was added smartly in your cart with the thing you wanted. Then you have already experienced what a dark pattern is.

 “Dark patterns are the methods which any website use to trick you into performing a certain action which initially you don’t intend to perform.”

The term “Dark Patterns” was coined by UX designer Harry Brignull so that people can recognize and notice the deceptive interface. 

These are the clever tricks that designers use to manipulate user behavior online or on their website for their benefit. These are manipulations and deceptions that make users do what they might not have done otherwise. These are very carefully crafted by paying great attention to detail and with a greater understanding of human psychology. Sometimes they might look like a mistake, but they are not. Dark patterns are mainly used to benefit the company/website to achieve their target goals like maximum sign-ups or an increase in sales. 

A classic example of a dark pattern is NETFLIX! How? Let me explain.

Netflix offers a one-month free subscription to all the new users. Wow, sounds exciting, right? But have you thought the logic of sharing your credit card details (enough to proceed with a transaction later) and choosing a plan you would want to continue with? This is a dark pattern!

You don’t get a prompt from Netflix when your free trial is about to lapse, and the money automatically gets deducted from your card when on completion.

From the above example, it is evident that the companies use these patterns to attract users and then manipulate their behavior for their benefits.

These techniques prompt the users to be an active part of using the website, but they are tricking them to deep dive into something they don’t intend to do in the first place.

Why do dark patterns exist?

Dark patterns exist everywhere in this digital world, mostly because sometimes a new, amateur, or a loyal user may not doubt the fidelity of the content of the website.

For example, the hidden costs—when shopping online, sometimes you decide to buy a particular shirt as it offers a significant discount. But when you go to cart to buy that shirt, you realize that the website did not show you the taxes on it. Or the worst case, that the discount is only valid on the total cart value of a certain amount. The amount which you are lacking is not too much, mostly 200-300 INR, to avail of the attractive discount but usually is very close to the discounted amount of the main item. They even prompt by showing you options to buy “impulsive buying”. So this way the website has increased its sales and made you do what they wanted you to do. If not this, then there might be some express delivery charges or convivence charges applied, which of course, are not a part of the initial displayed cost. 

The second reason, I which I think these dark patterns prevail is because a user usually does not have much time to read the instructions. They would much rather prefer and want to be directed by the website to perform a specific action (this is what good user experience is all about… Right!) Or is too busy to go through every written/hidden instructions. 

BUT…BUT…BUT… The catch here is that the use of these dark patterns only gives an impression of excellent user experience but whose primary intention is to manipulate user actions for purely business benefit.

Example: Websites loading pre-checked boxes when the users are logging in, like to use personal data for marketing purposes or subscribing for their newsletters/daily deals, etc.

Another example is of the very famous CandyCrush Game, which was a rage some years back, including me :). Playing it every time and virtually competing with your friend online who beats the level first and with how much score. The game is very user-friendly that all the main action buttons are placed in the center, i.e., to start the game, reentry if you lose, and the same positioned button if out of moves. But when you are out of moves, the button reads “buy moves,” which gives an option of buying moves with gold bars, which you can buy with the help of in-store purchase. Did you notice how smartly the designer conditioned you to click the same positioned button and not reading its label?

How do they harm UX?

Dark patterns are unethical; in simple terms, they fool the user.

They violate the trust of the user by accidentally making them purchase from the in-app store. Sometimes they even breach user’s privacy by making them give more than required personal info and using them for marketing purposes — example of facebook.

A good UX empathizes with the user, but dark patterns do not. They mainly target on their end business goals and hence play with the emotional side of the user by using not so clear/kind language, tricky questions, or even worse name shaming them. 

Dark patterns are misleading and confusing, both leading to increase the steps of the user to achieve his goal and in the end, leaving them irritated, angry, or frustrated. Example: an e-commerce site will give pop ads everywhere about the ongoing lightening deals or particular items on sale. IRRITATING… and when the user lands on that website, they find that the item is out of stock! FRUSTRATING… to add to it, the site shows similar items that are more expensive than the original discounted item. ANGRY… when the user leaves the page or disappointingly goes back to the first step of his goal. 

Dark patterns lack transparency. Like you will accidentally submit the login page with pre-ticked boxed hiding somewhere in layers of subscription of the newsletter.

Take away: UX is all about user satisfaction by offering them an easy, simple, and transparent product. Tricking them to do what they don’t want to do for your business benefit is unethical. Dark Patterns may give some fantastic short term results, but in the long run, they are incredibly harmful.

  • By Mansi Verma