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Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Kevin Croake June 3, 2016 E-Marketing, Noteworthy, Technology, Web Design & Development 1 Comment

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In the late 90’s, developer Ethan Zuckerman wrote a tiny javascript function for his company.

The premise of the function was simple: launch advertisements into separate windows to increase ad revenue and keep sponsors happy. He had no idea that this little script would trigger a plague within the world of the internet.

Not long after, every single user visiting a site had to deal with multiple advertisements popping up in every corner of the screen – the ads became so ubiquitous that we assigned them a moniker of their own: “popups”. Popups became such a significant issue that Microsoft and other software companies decided to use built-in popup blocks as a way to promote new versions of their browsers.

So why talk about popups? Well, I like to believe that the popup is patient zero in the global plague that is “dark patterns” in web design. A dark pattern is a user interface that is designed to trick its users into doing something they don’t want to do – accidentally clicking on an advertisement thrown in front of the content they actually want to read, for instance.

Some view dark patterns as simple bad design, but the opposite is actually true: dark patterns are maliciously, meticulously, and very intentionally designed. The same principles of design and psychology used to create great user experiences and interfaces are used to create bad ones too. You’ve probably encountered several instances of dark patterns in your day-to-day use of the web, possibly without your knowledge.

When Intuition Works Against You

The majority of dark patterns revolve around the concept of a “bait and switch”, where the user is promised one thing but given another. It’s a popular technique, used by con artists and shady companies since the dawn of time.

A recent example of something like this would be Microsoft’s Windows 10 upgrade. Microsoft seems to want us to forget about Vista, 7, and 9. If you have not upgraded yet, you will see a upgrade dialog box asking if you would like to upgrade. Intuitively, you hit the red “X” in the corner to close out of the dialog box; however, taking this action actually initiates the upgrade process. This is not okay, for two reasons. First, the upgrade process never gives the user time to back up important files or programs. Second, dependable prior experience told the user that clicking the “X” would close the program, which was the intended action. They wanted to close the popup and delay or negate the upgrade.

The Roach Motel

Have you ever signed up for a gym membership? Signing up was super easy, right? You logged into the gym’s website, filled out a form, and hit submit. Then, after a few months where you neglect to lift a single dumbbell or run a single mile and ultimately waste your membership dues, you decide you want leave the gym.

So you visit the website again, only to find that there is no form available to cancel your membership. You traverse the FAQs, and you discover that you need to write a letter (an actual letter, with paper and a pen) to the local branch or show up in person to quit.

The gym made it really easy to sign up, but unreasonably hard to leave. The most common use of a Roach Motel is actually newsletter signups, but with the growing use of campaign platforms (like MailChimp and Constant Contact), I’ve found that this is less of an issue. While we don’t have the story behind the name “Roach Motel” (although a roach-filled motel certainly sounds like a place worth leaving), we do know that this practice is a sleazy, underhanded way of keeping membership numbers high. Which is what we imagine the owner of a dirty, roach-y motel would like to do.

Straight-up Evil

Not all dark patterns are variations of the bait and switch. Some are just straight-up evil UX and UI. A common version that appears a number of popular news sites is the popup with a low-contrast exit button and high-contrast subscribe or buy button. With the fall of print newspapers, and therefore the print advertising from which papers earned a lot of their revenue, some companies are moving to an online subscription platform. And I’m all for digital subscriptions for services, but in many cases if you are not logged in (or not yet a subscriber), you will get a popup that says Subscribe now!” with obscured options to close the window. Usually the close option is an extremely light gray or off-white “X” in the corner. This tactic is especially tricky for people with poor eyesight – my parents, for instance, can’t see without their glasses, and having a low-contrast exit button is a trick to get them to accidentally subscribe. You wind up with disgruntled users, many of whom will either leave the site in frustration or follow through and become unhappy accidental customers.

hiding the close

Hard to see the close button isn’t it? 

Dark Pattern Variations

Another weird variant of a dark pattern that you might not have seen before is disabling text selection. You might try to copy something from a webpage but find that you can’t select anything. Your clicks don’t highlight or shift the text, and you start to wonder if there might be something wrong with your computer.

What does this accomplish? By keeping you from clicking (and highlighting, and copying, and searching text), some companies hope to prevent things like price comparison. Some online stores to this to try to force a user just to buy from them, without seeking out a cheaper price elsewhere. In reality, this is a practice that likely has very little return on investment. I would assume users to just move to a different site at that point, making the whole tactic fairly self-defeating.

These are just a couple examples of dark patterns and how they work. There is a website called darkpatterns.org whose goal is document well-known cases and interesting uses of dark patterns. You can send them any examples you find around the web.

To me, dark patterns present an interesting issue in the design world. Some, myself included, see them as sleazy methods by which online entities attempt to generate profit by sacrificing usability and accessibility. Others think dark patterns are a necessary means of staying in business. But regardless of your position, dark patterns are irrefutably interesting and worth further investigation.

1 Comment

  • Leslie DiNanno June 7, 2016

    Terrific job breaking down the variations of dark patterns … I have been bumping into them more and more often lately and oh so annoyed. I hadn’t thought about the skill it took to create them. Similar to hackers I suppose who are brilliant but my worst nemesis.

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