Discovering the dark art of ‘dark patterns’

The new year usually brings with it new resolutions. Whether it’s getting fit (yep, need to do that), keeping a tidier desk (check), or generally trying to be a better person (yes again), there’s always something to aim for.

Now that last point is interesting, and it got me thinking: should brands – particularly ones with a strong online presence – try to behave better too? Should we hold them to the same moral standards we do people?

I’m not talking about equal pay or carbon footprints in this instance – believe me there are plenty of people writing about those major issues. I’m talking about ‘dark patterns’. User interfaces designed to trick people.

Now that seems quite a sinister term, and although this subject is not as grave as it implies, it really is a blight on the digital landscape.

The online world is still unfamiliar enough to many people that it is easy for businesses to hoodwink their customers. It’s a pretty simple job to cause people to click on a link they didn’t want to click on, or make them inadvertently sign up for something they had no intention of signing up for. Reputable brands generally work hard to ensure there is no perception of this type of practice happening in the physical world, so why is it not the same in the virtual one?

I’ve wanted to write about this for a while but the event that finally got me typing was actually an ‘Unsubscribe’ link. Trivial, I know!

I received an email newsletter where every link in the emailer worked except the ‘Unsubscribe’ one. Now of course that could be a random mistake. It could be, but I’m not buying it. And the reason is that this kind of thing happens all too often.

Many people are familiar with the classic problem of online terms and conditions being so long, impenetrable and riddled with legalese, that you just end up accepting them without reading. And anything can be in there. Unpalatable changes to Facebook’s privacy settings is one example that comes up quite a lot. In fact, this experience is so familiar to us now (due to the frequency of online updates and app downloads) that the tech-world example of the iTunes Ts & Cs is often used to illustrate the problem in other walks of life.

You could argue that this is just bad interface design rather than dark patterns. But you always feel that if brands truly wanted to be transparent and trustworthy, they would just outline the changes or pertinent points in a clear, simple way. Basic good user experience, really.

Another example – and cheeky is not the word – is Ryanair. At least until January of 2014, when buying a ticket, they have hidden their opt-out for travel insurance under the ‘country of residence’ dropdown menu (see image below). It almost caught me out, and I’m supposed to know about these things. There must be so many people who carry on oblivious and end up buying travel insurance they didn’t want. Thankfully, a recent dip in financial performance has made Ryanair think twice; they’re now trying to eliminate “things that unnecessarily piss people off”.

Of course, I’m not so naïve to think that brands and businesses – even small ones – don’t need to sell themselves in flexible ways. I actually subscribe to that way of thinking. Nothing’s black and white. Mild embellishment, a confidence in your own product or service and a relentless drive to make your business better is the way it is and the way it should be.

But there’s operating between the lines, and operating between the lines.

Surely deliberately misleading online users, when it’s so easy to pretend that it was a mistake or oversight by your ‘web team’, is not the way to instil confidence and trust in your brand. In fact, it will actively do damage to your reputation.

Hopefully, improvements like the ones Ryanair are claiming to make are typifying the changing attitudes online to these practices. The web is finally moving out of its ‘Wild West’ phase and into a slightly more responsible young adulthood.

Who knows, with redoubled efforts over the next 12 months, dark patterns might just completely disappear within a few years. Now that’s a new year’s resolution I can subscribe to.

In the meantime, have a great 2015!


Originally written for BEAR