Dark Patterns, Deceiving Users with Dishonesty

This was an essay I wrote in 2013 for my design theory class, I’ve updated the sources and images with links, but the essay remains largely the same from when I originally wrote it.

When a designer looks at a design that isn’t theirs for the first time, a plethora of thoughts will rush through their head as they try to determine whether or not what they are looking at is a good design. Perhaps it’s not good, perhaps its terrible, or maybe it’s almost there but it hasn’t fully realized it’s potential. This thought process is also used by web designers, and they too will judge similar things, however, in the laundry list of judgements, something that might get overlooked is the intentions that the designer had for the user as they used the website. For example, if the website is an e-commerce site, the assumed intention might be that the company wishes to make a profit from services or goods sold. As an intention, its easy to see why this might be overlooked, obviously the website is a company, and companies need to make money to continue to operate. But, what if parts of the website are designed with the intention in mind of deceiving users in order to maximize the amount of profit that the company can make? The use of deception would then make the intention very different than one that wasn’t trying to deceive it’s users. User Experience designer Harry Brignull has coined the term Dark Patterns to describe this sort of intention to trick users, both to expose companies that would do that to users, and to enable designers to have conversations them.

Before the term Dark Patterns, designers rarely comment on this kind of deception on websites, as it is usually chalked up to being poorly designed, or as a unfortunate mistake, for what designer would purposely try to trick their user with deception? (Brignull) Without trying to figure out motive for why a designer would be ok with deceiving users, we can determine why a company would want to: increased metrics, higher profits, and better conversion rates. All three of these can prove to be too tempting for a company to pass up, especially if a company is new, or in trouble and looking to quickly improve numbers. To truly understand what drives a Dark Pattern we must look at the core of what makes up a Dark Pattern, how they work, and what options designers have to stop them from being the go to choice. Dark Patterns have the ability to lie somewhere between honesty and dishonesty, persuading customers with just enough dishonesty to make it a Dark Pattern. There is no single magic formula to creating a Dark Pattern, they can range from deceptive copywriting, to hidden fees, to any other deceptive experiences that can be found on a website, however this dishonesty may come at a price greater than the gains it could receive. With so many reasons, and ways for a company to use Dark Patterns, it makes it increasingly difficult for a designer to push back against their use, especially when the culture has already been established within the company. By looking extensively at these, we may begin to understand more why companies pick them, and how we can stop them from working against us.

Brignull's Gradient

In Harry Brignull’s 2011 article for A List Apart titled “Dark Patterns: Deception vs. Honesty in UI Design,” he uses a gradient to describe the different levels of Dark Patterns [Image Above]. To the far left are honest designs that have the users best intentions, and are above the companies desire for profits or gains. On the far right we can see there are Dark Patterns, which are dishonest and do not have the users best intentions in mind to the extent that they are tricking or deceiving the user in order to create profit and gains. On this same gradient, we can see in the middle exists the portion that perhaps isn’t in the users best interest, but still needs to be done in order to sustain “viable business.” This section is perhaps the most controversial part of the gradient, as there exists a fine line between simply persuading your user to better support your business, and tricking your user into doing something they did not expect. To this end, because of how complicated websites can be, depending on the level of trickery used on a website, there exists the opportunity for a company to make it seem like the user has made the mistake, having the user blame themselves for the mistake they have made instead of the company as they have felt they have done something wrong in the process, leaving the company profiting if they are not caught, and not responsible if they are (Garrett 17).. If there is the chance that they are caught though, what repercussions could come to the company as a result? Looking at the model of how most blogs and news sites work, there is a trend to embellish titles and calls to actions in order to grab the attention of readers in an age of never ending titles and calls to actions. As Ryan Holiday points out in Trust me, I’m lying: The Tactics and Confessions of a Media Manipulator, when it comes to ad revenue generated on tricking a user to click through to a link“[i]n the rare cases we’re caught red handed, it’s not like we have to give the money we made back” (Holiday 74).. As an economic model this works to the extent that the company responsible made a profit, and the user was delivered content and there was no negative outcome as a result of the deception (Gneezy 384). To the average user though, being coerced into looking at something may have been deceived to is something that we’re accustom to because of what we’ve also experienced with magazines and newspapers. If this same model was to be applied to legally binding contracts though, it might not be as forgiving as an error. This is why with user-centred designs, designers have a much greater responsibility to help users achieve their goals quickly with as little mistakes as possible (Garrett 18).

By knowing what a customers looks to achieve out of a visit to a companies website, and using that to combine value for the company with value for the user, making a richer experience for a client will actually bring more value to the company and a better experience for the user (Butow 68-69).

Amazon Checkout

Using Amazon.com’s checkout system as an example [see image above], we can see that there are layers of deception at work to get a profit from users as the default selection for shipping is not the Free Super Shipping, but instead the Standard-Shipping. Amazon has implemented multiple features to get and give the most value from it’s users. Being clear about the different shipping options is one, having it clearly labeled how long shipping times is another, the biggest value though is the call to action bar (with the default being unselected) informing that their shipping selection can be their default for every purchase, making it easier for users to have Free Shipping always be their default. Unquestionably, this example is one that could be very easily changed to be a Dark Pattern by changing a few things, instead though, Amazon has decided that the value of their users experience is more important than the value of tricking their users.

Currently, DarkPatterns.org has 14 sections on its websites of different tactics that both Harry Brignull and Marc Miquel have considered to be Dark Patterns that websites or companies have used to trick or deceive users. While this is a finite list of examples of how to deceive a user, it is by no means the limit to how a company may manipulate their user into doing something they did not expect or want to commit to. Especially with how websites are built today, every experience that a user has may vary greatly from one website to another. Rarely will there be a guide or someone to help guide a user though how to properly use a website, instead the user will be alone to experience the site exactly how the designer intended with only previous experiences to guide them (Garrett 11). In a Wired.com interview with hacker idealist Richard Greenbalt, Greenbalt says “There’s a dynamic now that says, let’s format our Web page so people have to push the button a lot so that they’ll see lots of ads. Basically, the people who win are those who manage to make things the most inconvenient for you.“ This inconvenience is another form of deception that can be used to violate the trust of users. Like deception it follows the principle of deliberately not helping the user, and turns users into “pageview-generating machines” (Holiday 73). There then exists a large amount of trust between the user and the website that they visit, and any deception experienced, whether intentional or not, has the potential to be seen as a Dark Pattern by the user, if caught. But if it is caught, and seen as malicious from the company and not as an error, then a users association of the negative effects that come with that experience has the potential to lead to serious ramifications for that businesses’ brand (Tancer 36). Ramifications could be anything from lost sales, consumer outrage, bad publicity to users seeking alternatives to a companies offerings on their website. This then, is why it is so important for designers to speak up and stop a Dark Pattern before it can be used, both for the company’s sake and the users.

The industry of Graphic Design is one of the few professions that does not require licensing or certification to be able to call yourself a Graphic Designer (Davis 13). This lack for a need for accreditation standards addresses the much bigger issue that can be associated with a designers willingness to use Dark Patterns, for they just don’t see the harm they could potentially be causing (Davis 15). Not to take the responsibility away from the designers, but this may explain why in some cases a designer may be alright with tricking users; they just don’t know any better. These designers though, perhaps should be categorized as bad designers instead of evil ones like Harry Brignull suggests they might be in Dark Patterns: Deception vs. Honesty in UI Design, although, there does exist the possibility that there are in fact evil designers who know what they are doing is wrong, and continue to design in a harmful way. Regardless of a designers intentions, becoming aware of the ethical issues involved with using persuasion and the fine line it may cross as a Dark Pattern is the responsibility of a designer (Fogg 212). Further more, if an interface confuses, deceives, tricks or inconveniences a user, the interface can’t be held accountable, only the moral actions of the designer can (218).

Designers often have restrictions placed on them, these may include Time, Individuality, Pressure from Above, Serving a different user base, and the designer thinks that he is a typical user (Butow 88-89). All of these have the potential to turn into a motivation for using a Dark Pattern to deceive users in order to meet the restrictions placed on the designer. These restrictions though, should not stop a designer from wanting to design something that still embodies what Cooper, Reimann, and Cronin consider to be the keys to good interface solution in About Face 3: The Essentials of Interaction Design, a solution that is ethical, purposeful, pragmatic, and elegant, while not inflicting harm on it’s user, or should minimizing harm as best as possible (Cooper et al. 152). These practices combined with being mindful of their moral obligation to their users, is how designers can overcome the temptation to use Dark Patterns.

Manipulation and deception will always exist in some form on the internet, having a term like Dark Patterns though helps designers have discussions, and better prepare themselves against using, and recognizing dark patterns. Users are also empowered though, as Dark patterns gives them the knowledge required to help them keep companies honest and trust worthy in their practices online. The internet is still very young, but there is no reason why it has to be immature about its intentions.


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