We all know that when users visit a website or download an app, they do so with an intent in mind. The design community designs on the premise that every user has a certain goal in mind when they interact with a user interface, and the role of the designer is to devise a user experience that will steer them towards achieving that goal. This would be an example of a great user experience.
However, designers are not independent decision-makers. Besides designers, a digital products or services company usually has marketers, product and service managers, senior managers who either take the final call or influence decision making when designing user interfaces for these products and services. Managers and marketers also have their own goals and metrics that companies use to measure and evaluate their performance. A designer must therefore enable a user experience that doesn’t compromise on the goals or intentions of the users and that of the company.
When companies prioritise their own goals or metrics such as increased revenue, new sign-ups, they can end up dark patterning the users.
What are Design Patterns?
Before we look at dark patterns, let’s look at what design patterns are. Design patterns are building blocks that designers use to create a user interface. These are not regulated but a library of patterns that have evolved over a period of time through the practice of design.
Design patterns can be annoying or frustrating sometimes when as a user, one has to navigate through an inconvenient journey but these patterns can qualify as ‘dark’ as soon as they cross over to the fraudulent, predatory, addictive or manipulative side for the users.
Dark patterns are also patterns that can be very confusing for the users – making a fool out of the users at the end of the process.
Dark Pattern is a term coined by Harry Brignull in 2009. He defines dark patterns as below.
“A user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things..they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the users’ interests in mind.” – Harry Brignull, darkpatterns.org
Dark Patterns are ways through which designers/decision-makers trick users into making choices that they may not be aware that they are making or may not be good for them. These patterns can usually be observed where there is a ‘call to action’; i.e. where a user is required to make a decision. Dark patterns operate on our cognitive biases (systematic error in our thinking) and heuristics (mental shortcuts that ease the load of making a decision) we use.
Bottomline, we have flaws that affect the kind of decisions we make and how we make them. Dark patterns employ tactics to optimize these cognitive biases and persuade us to make a decision that may not be in our self-interest.
These are mostly observed in e-commerce, gaming, and social media spaces in the context of a purchase, privacy policies, and addictive digital experiences.
Usually, dark patterns fall in one or two of the below categories:
- Asymmetric: Does the user interface emphasise particular choices more than others?
- Covert: Does the user interface steer the user to make purchases or choices without their knowledge?
- Restrictive: Does the user interface restrict the no. of choices available to the user?
- Hides information: Does the user interface obscure information or delay the presentation of key information?
- Deceptive: Does the user interface use misleading statements or omissions to induce false beliefs?
Today, when everything on the internet is fighting for our attention and design is the language through which we speak to digital products.