In this blog, we’ve been talking about dark patterns (or dark UX) for some time now. We specifically refer to a group of techniques and tools that help us improve people’s experience when they interact with services or digital products, which are also used to con users and benefit from their good faith. These tools are known as “dark patterns”, not only because they are not ethical, but also because the person involved isn’t aware that they’re being manipulated.
The term “dark pattern” was coined by Harry Brignull in 2010: when e-commerce and travel websites took off, he noticed that these techniques were used by different companies to lull users into making purchases they didn’t really want to make or subscribe to services with unclear costs or which were difficult to unsubscribe from, among other dishonest practices.
With the passing of time, those practices extended to other digital platforms, such as social media, games and mobile apps, with the aim of catching and keeping users’ attention, gather personal data and show ads.
Deceiving the Consumer: Before and Now
That type of manipulation is quite old. The world of advertisement and marketing has been using it for many years, but recent studies show that these operations worsen in digital environments, increasing the risk of users losing money, having their privacy invaded and being unable to make decisions independently.
Initially, Brignull created 12 categories of dark patterns, but new ones have been added. Some of the original definitions have also been broadened and refined. Besides, different studies have contributed further evidence thanks to more rigorous methodologies, the Princeton University study being one of the most recent and comprehensive, which analyzed more than 11,000 e-commerce websites in search of large scale use of dark patterns.
This travel agency hides the option to reject the purchase of travel insurance in the menu in which the user selects country of residence. Source
Dark Patterns and the Right to Privacy
An important improvement is that, thanks to the expansion of categories previously mentioned, some new ones have been introduced that refer to privacy fields and personal data. These dark patterns have been labelled “malicious” (Conti and Sobiesk) or referred to as “dark strategies” (Bösch), and they include:
- Privacy zuckering: deceiving the user so that they publicly share more private information than they originally wanted to.
- Confusion: asking questions to the user or providing information they don’t understand.
- Obfuscation: hiding information or interface elements.
- Forced registration: requiring account registration to access some functionality.
- Hidden legalese stipulations: hiding malicious information in lengthy terms and conditions.
Of all these dark patterns we can come across when we surf the web, use apps or play games, the ones related to our privacy are the most insidious. A recent study from the Norwegian Consumer Council (Frobrukerrådet) analyzed how the interface designs of Google, Facebook and Windows 10 hinder user access to privacy options, discouraging the exercise of right to privacy.
Among the findings, we may find intrusive setups selected by default, confusing texts, concealment of privacy-friendly setup options, “take it or leave it” options, and architectures in which the decision to select privacy options require a bigger effort on the part of the user.
Pop-ups designed to distract the user so that they don’t choose more restrictive privacy options or the threat that warns the user against choosing less invasive options so as not to lose functionality are some of the dark patterns that aim at making the user share as much information as possible.
In this example, we can see how Twitter warns their users that the app might not be free anymore if they don’t enable the option of “customized advertisement” (activity tracking), because that’s the type of advertisement that supports their business model. In fact, they will keep on showing ads, only that less relevant. Source
Is It Possible to Guarantee Ethical Design?
Governments and government agencies all around the world are adopting measures to protect the right to privacy and data protection in the digital world. The right to privacy is established on the European Convention on Human Rights and protected by the European legislation for data protection. In Argentina, act n. 25,326 for Personal Data Protection, passed at the end of 2000, is the main current legislation in matters of privacy.
According to Brignull, knowing how dark patterns work is the best way to defend ourselves and avoid being manipulated. We must remember that dark patterns affect us all, but there are some vulnerable sectors, such as children and teenagers, elders, people with disabilities, and people with addictions (gamblers, compulsive buyers), which might be severely affected, at both an emotional and an economic level.
As UX designers, we need to show others that it’s possible to apply good design and research practices and get positive results, for companies and also for people.
Talking about these dark techniques and strategies and educating users about them is the best way to fight them and make our contribution. If we always inform and advise users, and expose these techniques, we will guide users towards an informed and consensual use of technology.