A dark pattern is a term that gets tossed around in the field of UXUI. Designers use this term to describe elements that trick users into doing something they do not want to do. Examples include opting into a emailing list or sharing their personal information. Other times you will hear this term used to describe persuasive design techniques like scarcity.
So what exactly is a dark pattern really?
The term “dark pattern”: was coined in 2010 and defined as a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things they did not intend to do. For example, buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills. The key to dark patterns is that they have been intentionally crafted to trick users. They are an intentional implementation optimised for confusing and exploiting users.
1. Confusing Copywriting
For example, consider signing up for a newsletter from a new source and then encountering a checkbox that reads, Don't not sell my information. This language which uses a double negative is intentionally confusing. The page hopes users will make a mistake and opt into selling their personal information, and that benefits the company. Privacy policies in particular are prone to fall afoul of this. Typical telltales are overwhelming vocabulary, jargon, and an ambiguous tone.
For another example, let's think of manipulinks. Manipulinks make users feel bad about themselves in order to convince them to accept an offer or sign up for something. Dark patterns tend to negatively affect users in favor of short-term business gains.
Getting users to sell their data or accept an offer might sound nice right now, but the flipside is that it can lead to undermining user trust and faith in your company. Bullying people buying in will not lead to engagement.
3. Roach Motels
It is easy and straightforward to signup, but almost impossible to cancel. Roach motels are most common in subscription-type businesses. Some tell tale signs of a roach motel are long user journeys and many screens to cancel. This may also lead to directions to print out physical forms or engage with a customer service personnel to cancel.
If a user is seeking to leave. Intentionally undermining that effort generates even more bad will towards your business. It also fundamentally misunderstands their needs. Rather than intentionally making it difficult a slightly longer process that seeks to understand needs and obtain feedback before facilitating user choice would serve the company better.
Dark patterns vs Persuasive Design Techniques
In contrast to dark patterns, persuasive design techniques may apply similar visual effects but are designed to convince and persuade. This may range from visually highlighting certain items or providing copywriting aimed at influencing a user decision. The key is that these are not intended to trick the user.
For example, let's consider the scarcity principle which is a social psychology phenomenon that causes people to assign high value to things they perceive as being less available. We can apply this concept in our designs to influence users to make a decision now rather than later. This is not inherently a dark pattern. Howevere, lying about availability to exploit users into making a purchase is a dark pattern.
Designers rely on their knowledge of human psychology and user behaviors to make design decisions. However, there is a thin fine line between malicious and persuasive design. When we are evaluating other interfaces, it can be easy to assume there was malice or a negative intention behind a design but it may not always be the case. Just because an interface has poor design or encourages a specific behavior, does not make it a dark pattern but as designers and as users of systems we should be aware of dark patterns and be prepared to call them out where appropriate.
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