What are Dark Patterns? Three more damnable examples
As a follow-up to our previous post on the most chilling dark patterns, Rebecca Sentance highlights some of the worst examples of manipulative navigation and tricksy UX (cue: lightning crash and maniacal laughter).
The whole point of a ‘good’ user experience (UX) is to make things as easy and intuitive as possible for the consumer. That’s why UX and UI designers do what they do, right? The pinnacle of a good user experience is one that’s seamless and allows the user to quickly achieve their goal. Or, if they get stuck, they can easily find a way back to where they want to be.
But there’s a dark side to user experience which sets out to do something very different. Just as we have white hat and black hat SEO, or white hat and black hat hackers, there’s a ‘black hat’ equivalent of UX – and it’s known as ‘dark patterns’.
What are dark patterns?
Dark patterns make use of all the same tricks and signals as good UX design, but instead of helping the user towards their goal, they confuse the user into doing something or paying for something that they might not have intended to.
If you’ve ever opted in to marketing communications when you meant to opt out, bought a subscription you didn’t want to purchase, or found it unreasonably difficult to unsubscribe from a newsletter, it’s very likely that there’s a dark pattern at work somewhere.
Dark patterns give UX a bad name, and they often leave the user feeling frustrated and cheated instead of satisfied with their experience. They’re also surprisingly prevalent, and many otherwise reputable businesses can be found making use of dark patterns.
But the more attention we draw to them, the more we can build awareness of why these design choices are bad, and educate people about how to avoid them. So today, I’m going to examine four reprehensible examples of dark patterns in action.
1) Auto-renew subscriptions (and tricky fine print): The Economist
This is a common one: the auto-renew subscription. It’s a membership or special offer that you sign up to for a limited period – but don’t forget to cancel in time, or you’ll be automatically charged the full, hefty price!
I’ve been around the internet long enough that I feel I’m wise to this trick, but I was recently caught out by The Economist, which caused me a lot of needless anxiety in the middle of a holiday. I signed up to a special offer of a 12-week print and digital subscription for £12, after which I would be charged the full price of £53.
I carefully calculated when my subscription would renew, and set a reminder a few days beforehand to make sure I was in good time. Then, weeks before I was planning to cancel, I got an email saying that The Economist had attempted to charge my card with the full subscription amount (which mercifully hadn’t gone through).
When I rang up to cancel, it transpired there had been some fine print hidden away in an email I’d received – not the order confirmation, but another email – which quietly gave my real, much earlier, renewal date.
Not cool, Economist. Not cool.
2) Sneaky credit ‘deactivation’: Skype
I’m not sure if there’s a more general term for this dark pattern or if it’s unique to Skype, but it’s a hell of a deceptive technique either way.
Once, I was on the point of making an international call through Skype when I noticed I had no credit balance, even though I was sure that I kept my account well-stocked with credit. Not having any time to figure this out, I hurriedly paid for £10 of additional credit – and then discovered that I did in fact have plenty of credit already in my account. So I’d just paid £10 for credit I didn’t need.
It turns out that Skype credit ‘deactivates’ after a certain period of time with no calls, at which point you have to go through a reactivation process that can take up to 15 minutes – not great if you have a time-sensitive interview.
Skype claims that it sends you reminder emails before this is due to happen, but a notification on the user’s actual account would be a lot more helpful. Unless what you want is for them to spend needless money on credit, of course.
3) Confusing cancel button: Facebook
Facebook is a master of dark patterns, and the number of ways it has devised to make users publish information they might not want made public is frankly mind-boggling.
This is just one version, and it’s an example of a very prevalent dark pattern: confusing or misleading button labelling. When you update your bio on Facebook, you select the Save button to commit your changes. Facebook then asks you whether you want to post your bio to your News Feed:
Confusingly, you’re given the option to Cancel or Post, which makes it seem as though your changes won’t be saved if you click Cancel. In fact, they already have been, but this isn’t at all evident until you navigate back to your profile and see that the bio has updated. Thanks, Facebook – I was having trouble oversharing on social media until you came along.
Rebecca Sentance is the editor of digital marketing websites ClickZ and Search Engine Watch. Having spent most of her life on the internet, she has somehow managed to wrangle her way into writing about it for a living. When not publishing articles on digital marketing/SEO/UX, she can be found blogging about journalism on isitjournalism.wordpress.com or tweeting about nerdy things as @rainbowbex