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Deceiving your customers: dark patterns or bad design?

(This post originally appeared on the carwow Product & Engineering blog on Medium)

You may find this hard to believe, but not all people behind your favourite websites have your best interests in mind. Some, you might even say, are out to squeeze every last penny from you before you leave.

Ads covering every spare pixel are tiring and overlays can be downright condescending, but at least they’re being upfront about their intentions. The sneaky ones, the ones you can’t easily see, the ones built into the design – the ‘dark patterns’ – perhaps they’re the worst of all.

What are Dark Patterns?

Sounds like some kind of conspiracy theory from the dimly lit corners of the web, but ‘dark patterns’ is the term coined for practices on the web that deceive users into doing something unintended. You expect one thing, you get another.

Darkpatterns.org, a site dedicated to educating people on the practices and naming and shaming offenders, describes it as:

“Normally when you think of “bad design”, you think of the creator as being sloppy or lazy but with no ill intent. This type of bad design is known as a “UI anti-pattern”. Dark Patterns are different?—?they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.”

There are some great examples of this in the library on that site, but I want to share a possible dark pattern I personally encountered last week.

Colour me bad

Now on the grand scale of things, this one isn’t in the ‘Super-Evil’ category, more in the ‘Oh, that’s cheeky’ tier. And I feel a little bad naming them, as I liked the product and it was very helpful to me on a recent research project, but…

Informizely, formerly known as Insitez, offer a number of online survey tools?—?I’d used their very useful exit survey product to help understand why users were leaving a particular page on our website. It served it’s purpose, but I didn’t need it any more and didn’t want to keep on paying the monthly subscription fee.

So I logged into my account and opted to unsubscribe. This was the message I was presented with:

colour based dark patterns

It seemed so simple, but I hesitated. My brain went ___________. What had stopped me? It was only a fraction of a second and as soon as I realised I had to chuckle.

The colours were the wrong way round. Accepted norms in colour psychology say ‘red means stop, green means go’. If I want to proceed I click the green thing. Don’t I? Er, no.

Were they trying to trick me into keeping my subscription or could it just be ‘bad design’? The latter is possible, I suppose. A quick straw poll of a handful of designers in the office was met with laughter.

dark_patter_ragnar

I’m guessing they’re not convinced. I’m just not sure what the thought process could have been behind the innocent selection of those colours and labels.

We’ll never know. I cancelled anyway. Using the red button. (that was the right one, wasn’t it?)

Lesson Learned

What can we take away from this? To borrow from Google… ‘Don’t be evil’. If you’re charged with growing a business, employing dark patterns might deliver you short term gains, but it leaves a sour taste in the mouth of your duped (/nearly duped) customers, serving only to build long term distrust in your brand.

**Bonus Dark Pattern**

In writing this I realised I encountered another potential dark pattern recently, buying trainers on the Sports Direct website. Darkpatterns.org has a category for this type?—?the rather descriptive ‘Sneaky into basket’.

I selected a pair of Astroturf trainers, went to the checkout to pay, only to do a double take when I realised a magazine had automatically been added to my basket. It was only £1, but I certainly had no interest in it and was peeved that it had been added.

I wonder what percentage of customers complete their purchase completely unaware of this surreptitious addition?

shopping basket dark patterns