Come To The Dark Side
So far I have looked at what makes a good user experience. I’ve looked at the ten usability heuristics and the psychological principles of influence and how these two relate to one another. Madlug showed us that these designs can be used for perceived ‘good’ and MVMT highlighted how these same designs can be expanded on to apply more influence on the user.
But what about the other side of design? What about when designers go too far or don’t know when the levels of influence they are applying are roaming into the territory of manipulation? When this happens we are straying into the world of dark patterns.
darkpatterns.org describes these patterns as; “tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to.” These patterns are generally considered bad usability and should be avoided at all cost. But as there is little in the way of information surrounding dark patterns, it can be easy for businesses to fall into the trap of using them without realising. You can easily spot these patterns as they are usually very frustrating to the user.
There are currently 11 different types of dark pattern:
- Bait and switch.
- Disguised ads.
- Forced continuity.
- Friend spam.
- Hidden costs.
- Price comparison prevention.
- Privacy Zuckering.
- Roach motel.
- Sneak into basket.
- Trick questions.
A full explanation of each of these can be found on darkpatterns.org. In this section, I will investigate the more common dark patterns.
One of the most common patterns is the ‘roach motel’ pattern, which makes it easy for you to get into a situation but difficult to get out of it. If you have ever signed up for a service online and then tried to cancel your subscription only to find that you have to phone the company to do so, you have fallen victim of the roach motel. This practice is becoming ever more common as sites are asking you to sign up via Facebook, then whenever you go to cancel your account, you are asked for your password. When you never created one in the first place.
Forced continuity is another very common pattern on the web. darkpatterns.org describes it as; “When your free trial with a service comes to an end and your credit card silently starts getting charged without any warning.” Often businesses will use this model and the roach motel model together to make it almost impossible to cancel your membership or subscription. Citizens Advice estimates that around two million consumers every year have problems canceling subscriptions and over 40% of British people are paying for a subscription that they do not use.
I myself fell victim to Forced Continuity in my first year of university. I signed up for a two-week free trial of Treehouse (teamtreehouse.com), a service to help you learn to code, I assumed I would be charged the day after the last day of my free trial. However not only did they charge me on the last day of my trial but they did not send me an email or notify me that they were about to do so. I was charged $200 for a year subscription. Luckily I emailed them immediately and explained my situation and they gave me a refund. Though I did have a good few hours of panic before they responded to me.
These two examples are quite extreme but dark patterns aren’t always as obvious to spot. Trick questions are often used to get users to sign up for newsletters or to opt-in to receiving marketing material. Most of the time without the user even being aware that it has happened until they start receiving more and more emails. Misdirection, making a button take a user somewhere they aren’t expecting to go, often ends with the user thinking that they have clicked on the wrong thing and blaming themselves for the blunder.
These patterns often end with the user feeling cheated and lied to. They can achieve short-term wins for the company such as an increase in sign up’s for a newsletter but often end up backfiring. With users boycotting businesses and services that have used these patterns on them, businesses often end up losing more money in the long run. In extreme cases, such as Affinion, users felt so cheated they ended up filling lawsuits against the company. According to darkpatterns.org; “Affinion has paid millions of dollars in civil claims and state attorney general claims for unfair and deceptive trade practices, and faces multiple class-action lawsuits.”
An Evil Overlord
One of the most well-documented cases of a dark pattern being used is the Amazon Prime free trial. Amazon offered (for a limited time) a six month free trial of their Prime service. Thousands of people signed up. During the sign-up process users without an Amazon account were asked to provide bank details. Users with an existing account were asked to verify their current details. Thinking nothing of it they all signed up. Then six months later with no warning that their trial was coming to an end, they found themselves with £79 less in their account as Amazon had automatically taken the payment for a years subscription, the day their trial ended.
As mentioned above this is called ‘forced continuity’. Users were rightfully outraged and demanded refunds. After many people complaining publicly about what had happened Amazon decided the issue refunds to the users who requested it. But the damage had already been done. People were now more wary of signing up to Amazons free trial offers. And indeed to other unrelated free trials.
Fortunately for Amazon, it was a big enough company that they were able to absorb the negative press and actually keep a large portion of the customers who had signed up for the free trial. This can be attributed to the consistency principle and to the reciprocal effect. As highlighted in ‘Webs of Influence’: “We are hardwired to repay in kind what another person has given to us, which is why reciprocally can be such an effective influencing strategy.” Amazon gave its users 6 months of Prime for free, subconsciously those users felt indebted to Amazon for this and so were less likely to cancel their plan.
This very obvious use of a dark pattern was considered by many to be a contradiction to what they already knew of Amazon. It had always been considered to have a great user experience, and are often cited as showcasing the best practice of how things should be done in e-commerce. It’s only when you look deeper at Amazon that you realise they have been employing almost all of the psychological influence principles alongside some subtle dark patterns.
On their individual product pages, they use social proof in the form of reviews. They also use social proof to cross-sell other items, ‘people who bought this item also bought..’ and ‘these items are frequently bought together..’ As Nodder states in ‘Evil by Design’; “If you hear about the same product from several different sources you tend to attribute more positive views to it than a product you are unfamiliar with.” This reinforcement of a particular product dispels doubt in it and fosters reassurance that this product should be bought.
Amazon also uses continuity. By prompting users to continuously supply reviews they are getting people to visibly say they have purchased a product and thus making it more difficult for them to back out and ask for a refund. Authority is applied by allowing people to ask questions directly about the product on the product page and finally, scarcity is used by informing the user that there is only ‘3 left in stock’.
Amazon also uses some dark patterns throughout their site. During the checkout process, all navigation is removed from the page, this is the ‘roach motel’ pattern. They make it extremely easy to add an item to your cart, but when you go to checkout it is almost impossible to navigate back. This is an interface pattern that has been snatched up by the rest of the web and is now extremely common.
Amazons influence has stretched past the boundaries of just the people who use it, they are now influencing the design of most e-commerce websites. Alongside other e-retail giants such as Asos, (asos.com) they are shaping the future of the web and set the standard of what is and is not acceptable to do to influence your users.
It’s Not All Black And White
So far I have only looked at these design patterns from the point of view of them being used specifically to influence the user. However, this is not the whole picture.
Not all the examples of influence shown are purely for the benefit of the business. Reviews can help a user decide whether or not to purchase a product. Of course, this only applies if the reviews are uncensored (as they often are not). Not having reviews on a site can also be a hindrance to conversion, as users may think the business is trying to hide something that is bad about the product. Because of this, it could be very difficult for a designer to avoid using some influence techniques. It can also be confusing, as a lot of these patterns are now flouted as ‘best practice’ in design by the likes of nngroup.com.
According to Jakob’s ‘Law of Internet User Experience’; “Users spend the majority of their time on other peoples sites.” They are used to specific navigation styles and design patterns. This means that consistency has become a major component in web design. As we learned from Amazon, copying business leaders in the field of design often leads to designers applying principles of influence without even realising that they are doing so.
On top of this, businesses often feel they have to use as many of these persuasion techniques as possible, to achieve their business goals, and can put pressure on their designers to implement ever more influential patterns. One thing designers can do in this situation is to explain to a business that maximising the user experience of their website can be all that is needed to help boost sales. ‘The $300 Million Dollar Button’ is a good example that shows businesses do not need to use dark patterns to reach their ends.
In the article, Jared Spools talks about how he worked on a project to figure out why people were dropping off after adding an item to their cart. He found that people were being stumped because they were being asked to log in to check out. So he made one small change. To allow users to check out without an account. “The results: The number of customers purchasing went up by 45%. The extra purchases resulted in an extra $15 million the first month. For the first year, the site saw an additional $300,000,000.” All without using a single dark pattern. All he did was make the checkout process easier to complete.
This is a very strong example of what one simple change can do when considering the user experience of a particular flow. Observing users behaviour and analysing the data can show you where you are going wrong and help you fix it, often with only minor changes.
Taking all this information and these case studies into consideration starts to show us that there is not a clear-cut answer to this question. It is not a case of right or wrong but rather a scale. As with good and evil, there are two sides to every story. In the first section, we looked at how I helped a charity implement persuasion techniques to get users to buy bags. Thus helping children in care. In this case, I didn’t apply too many persuasion patterns.
But should I have? Should I have used more influence to get users to spend more, to help more children in care? What are the moral/ethical implications of such a move?
In the second section, I looked at Amazon and how this giant in the retail world is strongly implementing influence techniques. We have to be aware that in doing so it is also influencing other websites who use it as an example of best practice. I believe these two case studies are at either end of the scale. On one hand, you have a small charity trying to make a difference in peoples lives and on the other a massive conglomerate with a net worth of over $90 Billion.
In my opinion, you cannot apply the same thinking to one as you would to the other. However, both businesses have the same basic aim: to make more money.