Dark patterns are destined to become more subtle, more insidious, and will continue to evolve as we make strides in UX.
When I see a spider in the room, I never let it out of my sight. I become fascinated with where it’s lurking and where it plans on going. I become entranced by this primal desire to protect myself from this horrifying, eight legged creature. Recently, I’ve had a similar fixation with the dark patterns crawling across the web, attempting to trap users with their tricks. Unfortunately, unlike my regular nemeses, these problems can’t be trapped in a tupperware container. Still, I find it endlessly fascinating to delve deeper into these eerie, backwards approaches to web design.
But once I pinpointed where the dark patterns were, I started to wonder… where are they heading? The following are my predictions on which new variations of these dark patterns will become more prevalent throughout the rest of 2018 and beyond.
When users unsubscribe from Hubspot’s email list, they’re presented with a 60 second video awkwardly asking them to stay.
The Pattern: Guilt Tripping
What It Is: Emotional manipulation of users by shaming them for deciding to discontinue a service, ignore an offer, or skip on your brand.
How to Spot It: Often impossible to miss, the insidious nature of this tactic isn’t the fact that it is hidden but that it’s hard to escape the way it makes us feel. When a brand shames you for making a decision, turn that frustration into catharsis by letting the world know how needy they are.
The Pattern: Permission Looping
What It Is: Using another company or service to gain access to information you otherwise wouldn’t share with them.
How to Spot It: Spotting this pattern requires due diligence and the willingness to spend some time looking for hidden information during sign processes. The main thing to consider is what companies are asking to share your information with each other, what type of information they are sharing, and how much power they have regarding that information. These details are often hidden in small, subdued links at the bottom of whatever webpage or pop up is asking for this permission.
Clicking into ad links for Invision brings users to a splash page featuring one choice: fill out the form or leave the website.
The Pattern: Over-personalization
What It Is: A website or service “personalizes” the experience by restricting content to urge you into a purchase/decision.
How to Spot It: This pattern is not evident at first glance and may not be able to be seen just by interacting with the interface alone. Yet another pattern that requires due diligence, and potentially digging for hidden information, you will likely have to either research the platform you are using (e.g., going into the settings on Facebook) or look for information from third parties to determine whether you’re being allowed to see the whole picture.
The Pattern: Bad Bots
What It Is: Bots posing as humans attempting to use social influence to urge you into an action.
How to Spot It: Although bots have been the talk of the tech world for several years now, with many jumping into the conversation after the most recent US presidential election, we are just now starting to dig into the impact these lines of code are having on us. It’s often easy to tell whether or not someone is a bot by visiting their social media profile and looking at key descriptors (e.g., how many friends do they have, what are the interests they have listed, and do they post about anything other than a handful of topics). However, as technology advances and these bots become more realistic, we will likely need companies to step in and moderate their own platforms.
The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab has written an excellent Medium post about spotting bots which you can read here.
You think you have a notification from a webpage, but it’s really just Samsung bugging you to sign up for their rewards program.
The Pattern: Dark Notifications
What It Is: Ads or requests to complete specific actions, hidden in the guise of normal notifications.
How to Spot It: Although you can swipe away annoying push notifications, it’s pretty much impossible to tell whether the little red (or blue) dot hovering over your app is a dark notification. While many apps allow you to change your notification settings to get rid of most of these annoyances, some companies subject you to their dark notifications no matter what. Ignoring these notifications lets companies know you aren’t willing to engage in their trickery. Providing them with feedback, and/or choosing a different company to do business with, will send an even stronger message.
The Pattern: Redirection
What It Is: Requiring the use of a different device or software to complete the action a user wanted to do, in hopes of making the user abandon the task.
How to Spot It: When you are forced to use a website instead of an app or you can only complete something on desktop, when most actions are otherwise interchangeable. This pattern is difficult to avoid, because you normally don’t notice it until it is too late. The important thing in this situation to persevere through the roadblocks in your way and inform others of this insidious practice.
The ticket page for this music festival has been saying they would end ticket sales in under 24 hours for several weeks.
The Pattern: “Social” Pressure
What It Is: Displaying fake user metrics or overemphasizing scarcity to encourage click throughs or create fear of missing out.
How to Spot It: You mostly need to look for clues and use context to make an educated guess whether you are being pressured into a purchase. Any time a popular product has surprisingly low stock, a large event is ending ticket sales early (or before selling out), or an easily distributed service has a “one time offer”, is a strong indicator that you are being lied to. It’s often worth a quick Google search to see if the company engaging in this practice is known for it– many savvy consumers have caught on to these tricks and started sharing them with others.
The Pattern: Pseudo-control
What It Is: Allowing users to temporarily change a setting or only change the look of a feature so they aren’t able to opt out of something they don’t want.
How to Spot It: Any time you aren’t allowed to make a simple, specific action (e.g., turning off notifications) normally indicates this pattern is taking place. While some apps and websites will allow you to dig deeper into their settings to actually take control, others have started making this practice the only way you can interact with certain parts of their platform.
A Light in The Dark
Despite the apparent resilience of dark patterns, there are many ways to counteract them– as I’ve written about in previous articles. The tough part is that it requires resilience and cooperation amongst those trying to take them down to convince companies to replace them with more ethical practices.
I know I’ve spent my time in this article outlining the ways dark patterns will continue change and grow, but there is a better alternative to these patterns that we should all be keeping our eyes on– persuasive design. This trend intends to be upfront and honest with users while still attempting to show them the benefits of a product or service.
We already know that dark patterns aren’t effective in the long run. But if the tech industry can really lean in to persuasive design and prove how much more effective ethical business practices can be, there’s a chance we can see a future where dark patterns are merely a footnote in the book of user experience design.
Are there any dark patterns you’ve noticed that I haven’t mentioned in my articles? What about viable alternatives to these patterns?
Nathan Davis contributed to this article.
Also published on Medium.