Summary

Dark notifications abuse the use of messages to trick users into unwanted activities and should be avoided by anyone trying to deliver an adequate user experience.

Introduction

If you drive across the Midwest at night, you’ll notice the unmistakable, eerie glow of wind turbines strewn throughout the landscape. Each turbine has a blinking red light that, when combined with dozens of others, creates an unsettling sci-fi scene in the middle of the heartland. Every time I see those red lights, they remind of me a disturbing trend in technology– dark notifications. Similar to how those wind turbines can dominate the Midwest’s rustic scenery, dark notifications tend to pierce through otherwise elegant user interfaces and dominate your attention. The problem is, these aren’t the notifications you are looking for.

What Are Dark  Notifications?

In previous articles, I covered some potential pitfalls and best practices for creating notification systems. Both of these articles assumed that companies creating these systems would act ethically and logically based on their users’ best interests. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. This is where dark notifications come in.

Dark notifications are alerts or messages sent to deceive or prod users into doing something they wouldn’t normally want to do, which results in a useless, annoying, and/or downright manipulative user experience. Although this practice can result in a short term improvement in user engagement, it will ultimately lessen the value users place on their interactions with your company, and it might even push them away entirely.

So, what do dark notifications look like? Here are a few examples:

You think you have a notification from a webpage, but it’s really just Samsung bugging you to sign up for their rewards program.

LinkedIn pings you for everything from a contact liking someone else’s post to “new opportunities” they have found for you to use their site more often… such as following a little known, up and coming fellow named Bill Gates.

Facebook often sends you “notifications” for things that aren’t actually notifications, like who they think you should be friends with. (Photo credit: Andrew Wilshere)

The Future of Dark Notifications

We’ve all received countless dark notifications. The problem is, they have become more prevalent and are starting to have a real impact on our daily lives. Andrew Wilshere from Design Lab illustrates this point in his excellent article about notifications, saying:

If yesterday’s problem was work/life balance, then this story is about tech/life balance. The use of notifications as a dark pattern is important because it raises questions about how we regulate and control our personal use of smart technology in a world not only where it is pervasive, but also where those running key services have no qualms about bombarding us with information.

Technology has the potential to enhance our social and personal lives by keeping us connected. But notifications show that technology also has the power to impair our lives by supplanting real connections with ones that have been commercially brokered, mediated, and processed.

Dark notifications are already being used by tech giants and startups alike to foster fake connections. So, where do we go from here? While dark notifications as a whole likely won’t disappear anytime soon, there are a few steps we can take to try to walk back the damage that has been done.

As conscious consumers, we can:

  • Try to give constructive feedback directly to companies using dark notifications.
  • Avoid engaging with notifications we know are trying to manipulate us.
  • Start discussions about these practices online and in-person.
  • Give recognition to products and websites with excellent notification systems.

As UX professionals, we can:

  • Ensure all notification systems are properly tested with real users.
  • Encourage our clients/teams to get continuous feedback about the notifications they send.
  • Speak up when a team is tempted to start using dark notifications.
  • Push teams to think about the long term UX of their products (which in turn should eliminate dark notifications from the conversation).

Conclusion

As we strive to drive engagement and personalize the web for our users, we must also look at the consequences of the systems we build. Viewing users as sales figures or data points can lead us astray from effective communication and distance us from the people we are trying to serve. By looking at our users as human beings that deserve conversations based on dignity, respect, and honesty, we can make better choices about the products we create. This benefits both our companies and the people they serve, in the short term and the long term.

When I stare up at those ominous, pulsating lights emanating from the wind turbines dotting my home; I like to think back to what things looked like before they were around. In a similar way, I often catch myself thinking back to when I didn’t have an array of smart devices interrupting my day with useless notifications. Both of these problems are tolerable, but more importantly, they’re fixable. We just have to step boldly in a direction of innovation and convince those around us to do the same.

Resources:

Wilshere, A. (n.d.). Are Notifications A Dark Pattern? Retrieved January 03, 2018, from
http://trydesignlab.com/blog/are-notifications-a-dark-pattern-ux-ui/