Dark Patterns

In today’s digitally driven culture, where we share more about ourselves than ever before, companies are finding new, subtle ways to tap into an age-old marketing opportunity—our insecurity.

No thanks, I already have a bikini body ...

That’s what you’d have to click to opt out of a Women’s Health newsletter. It’s a declarative sentence, set in grey text on a slightly different grey background. By comparison, the opt-in button is giant, written in all caps, and hot pink. It reads “GET MY BIKINI BODY.” Though neither is clearly related to a newsletter, those are your options: either resign to your insecurities and give away personal information, or affirm something that most likely isn’t true.

“It’s a way to get people to do things they didn’t previously want to do,” says Harry Brignull, a UK-based user experience consultant. Brignull has been studying these types of psychological design traps for the better part of a decade. He coined the term “dark patterns” to bring these deceptive techniques to light and created the website darkpatterns.org, where he outlines the wide range of manipulative practices used to get you to sign up, buy, add, or otherwise give over something you didn’t want to.

We’ve all seen them. There’s the classic “bait and switch,” where you set out to do one thing—like closing a pop-up ad—but end up with an unintended, often opposite consequence. “Forced continuity” is another that is frequently used when your free trial ends, to silently start charging you as a regular customer. Then there’s the “trick question,” often used to get you to do something like click a checkbox using confusing language. Another is the “roach motel,” a design that makes it easy to get into a system, but very hard to get out.

The first dark pattern that crystallized it for Brignull was employed by the Irish airline Ryanair. In order to opt out of travel insurance when booking a flight, the user had to select a dropdown menu that read, “Please select country of residence”—a serious question for someone buying a plane ticket—and from there select the option “No travel insurance required,” hiding between Latvia and Lithuania. “It’s not even alphabetical. It makes no sense at all,” says Brignull.

It’s easy to think of these tricks as the work of the internet’s bottom-feeders, with their suspicious pop-ups and shady contests that you’re always the winner of, but dark patterns are a pervasive technique used by some of the biggest internet giants out there. There’s even a pattern named after one of them—“privacy Zuckering.” Named after Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, this is where you’re tricked into sharing more about yourself that you intended to, whether through concealed privacy settings or encouraging pop-ups.

Perhaps the most public dark-pattern shaming came in 2015, when LinkedIn agreed to pay $13 million (USD) as part of a class action lawsuit to compensate users who signed up for its “add connections” feature. When accepted, it allowed LinkedIn to scrape through a user’s address book, sending the now-famous message, “Hi, I’d like to add you to my professional network on LinkedIn.” What seemed inconsequential to the individual recipient turned out to be a sweeping attempt to get more people to sign up for the service.

The unfortunate reality is that a lot of the time, dark patterns actually work. The reason is that they play on a common technique in user interface design called design patterns. These are an assembly of components that make up a common screen or menu in an interface. Brignull explains: “If I said to you, ‘login box,’ you’d be able to picture it in your head, right? It would be a box with a text field and a masked text field for the password. There’d be a login button and forgotten password link next to it. You just know it in your head.”

No thanks, I like eating unhealthy food.

Reader’s Digest

It’s that last fact that makes dark patterns so effective. User interface design has developed a series of standard practices for the types of menus you see across different websites. You want a sign-in menu to appear the same across the web, as a shorthand for the type of action to expect. The same goes for an “x” at the top corner of a window, or the assumption that checking a box implies an affirmative response. Dark patterns take advantage of these systems, playing on our cognitive biases, and invert their meaning. Brignull puts it this way: “Basically, if you’ve learned design well, you’ve also learned dark patterns at the same time.”

While they thrive online, it’s a practice that predates modern interfaces, and even the web altogether. One of the earliest dark patterns was born in 1926, in the Book of the Month Club. The standard subscription model, which the company was founded on, was a simple idea. Customers would pay a flat subscription fee to be sent a new title every month. However, cancellations and mass returns eventually led to a naughty technique called “negative billing,” in which customers had to decline a title in advance in order to avoid being shipped and billed for it. No response was taken as acceptance of that month’s selection.

Nowadays, companies have become surprisingly skilled at these persuasive techniques. “The most cleverly architected dark patterns are ones that people don’t really notice,” says Brignull. Take, for example, the dark pattern that lives at IKEA. If you’ve ever been to the blue and yellow giant, you’ll know there’s a very specific way in which you are designed to walk. The wayfinding is exceptionally clear. There are arrows on the door and site maps throughout the building. You walk from living room to workspaces, kitchen to bedroom, but every now and then there’s an opening in the corner of a room that allows you to jump ahead, like Snakes and Ladders. Even though you’re technically walking toward the checkout the entire time, the journey is designed with a lot of detours. It’s virtually impossible to go into IKEA to buy a single item.

Persuasive design is a longstanding practice, but not all dark patterns are bad. Companies in the US that automatically enroll their employees into a 401k plan have a higher rate of engagement because people are less likely to opt out of something they’re already signed into.

“The easiest way of measuring whether it’s evil or not is who benefits,” says Chris Nodder, author of Evil by Design. A former senior user researcher for Microsoft, Nodder categorizes persuasive design into four categories. There’s Evil, where the designer or company benefits more than the user; Commercial, where benefit between company and user is equitable; Motivational, where the user benefits even though they wouldn’t make the choice unaided; and Charitable, in which society benefits more than the user or company.

According to Nodder, fitness trackers are a form of Motivational design. He explains, “You can argue, ‘Well, they’re selling me a product and that means that they benefit from it.’ But the persuasive side is when you didn’t quite meet the ten thousand steps, so you go for an extra stroll around the block just to meet your ten thousand steps. Persuasive design can be used for good as well, right?”

No thanks, I have infinite energy.

Bicycling Magazine

Clearly, the use of persuasive techniques is a tricky subject, hinging on what we deem acceptable behaviour from a company—where we draw the line. The spectrum extends from harmless persuasion to vague deception, and all the way to behaviour that pushes the legal threshold of what is allowed. It’s a fuzzy line at best, and one that is always moving.

While dark patterns may seem like an insignificant pocket of manipulation, they’re a litmus test for the rest of the marketing and design world. They’re a contained experiment, all of the pieces right there in front of us, clear to anyone who takes a step back. The patterns that go unnoticed have the greatest impact. Take nearly any web-enabled service today, like Uber, which uses location-based data, or Amazon, which stores your credit card information. In many ways, these are the darkest patterns; huge networks that seep into fundamental parts of our daily lives, turning once questionable behaviour into mundane decisions.

“There’s another big question about whether designers push society or whether designers respond to society, and I think it’s a bit of both,” says Nodder. “Persuasive design has always existed. But companies can use it more now because there’s more value in what people receive from the web and from their various applications. So they’re prepared to give up more of their personal information, their privacy, or their money in order to get those things.”

I ended my conversation with Chris by asking what he thought of Amazon Echo, the device for your home that allows you to buy anything off Amazon with a voice command. Newer models also contain a camera, so that Alexa, the device’s AI, can give you her opinion on your outfit or snap a photo for Instagram. “How many people's insecurities is that absolutely pulling on? It’s amazing. It’s genius. It’s evil genius.”

Dark Patternology
These aptly named design tricks are hiding quietly in every corner of our online experience. Here are some of the most common traps of the trade.

Privacy Zuckering
You are tricked into publicly sharing more information about yourself than you really intended to. Named after Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Friend Spam
The product asks for your email or social media permissions under the pretence they will be used for a desirable outcome (e.g. finding friends) but then spams all your contacts in a message that claims to be from you.

Forced Continuity
When your free trial with a service comes to an end and your credit card silently starts getting charged without any warning. In some cases, this is made even worse by making it difficult to cancel the membership.

Roach Motel
The design makes it very easy for you to get into a certain situation but then makes it hard for you to get out of it (e.g. a subscription).

Price Comparison Prevention
The retailer makes it hard for you to compare the price of an item with another item, so you cannot make an informed decision.

The design purposefully focuses your attention on one thing in order to distract your attention from another.

Disguised Ads
Adverts that are disguised as other kinds of content or navigation in order to get yo to click on them.

You get to the last step of the checkout process only to discover some unexpected charges have appeared (e.g. delivery charges, tax, etc.)

Sneak into Basket
Somewhere in the purchasing journey the site sneaks an additional item into your basket, potentially through the use of an opt-out radio button or checkbox on a prior page.

Types of dark patterns by darkpatterns.org