Notice And Avoid Dark Patterns Online

Image: Richard Leeming, Flickr

Have you ever noticed how online accounts are incredibly easy to sign up for, but can be stupidly difficult to close? Sometimes the Close Account option is right where you'd think it would be, but other times you have to hunt it down, clicking through menu after menu until you finally find out that you can't close it online, you actually have to call.

There's a name for this phenomenon — dark patterns. And it's not just hidden account-deletion options, either. Dark patterns are design tricks a website uses, on purpose, to get you to sign up, make a purchase, subscribe, or change your mind about leaving — basically, to do what the company in question wants you to do. It's the dark side of UX.

This video by The Nerdwriter helpfully explains dark patterns and gives some classic examples of different types you'll encounter around the web. It can also be viewed at darkpatterns.org, a site conceived by UX researcher Harry Brignull.

The site also includes a Hall of Shame of examples collected on Twitter and deeper dives into the different types of dark pattern.

For example, one common dark pattern is called the roach motel because it's easy to get into but hard to get out of. This technique is hard at work on Amazon.com, which hides its Close Account option deep in layered contextual menus.

If you ever do find it, it turns out you have to start a chat and ask Amazon to close your account for you — which, of course, gives them one more chance to talk you out of it.

Another example in the video is ads shown on touchscreen devices that make it look like there's a speck of dust clinging to your screen. When you go to wipe it off, you're likely to accidentally tap the ad. Isn't that mean?

Luckily, dark patterns have something in common with bad kerning and unnecessary quotation marks: Once you begin to notice them, you'll start to see them everywhere.

Not an hour after I'd watched the video embedded above, I saw this tweet about Google hoping to confuse would-be searchers looking for DuckDuckGo. That's a dark pattern.

And of course we saw a lot of dark patterns in play when sites that collect and sell data from users suddenly had to disclose that and let people opt-out, after the GDRP regulations went into effect this May. Remember this UX nightmare from Tumblr? By leaving off an "uncheck all" button, the designers were clearly hoping you'd give up.

Being able to spot dark patterns is the key to avoiding them. And the more you see, the less likely you are to trust companies who pull these tricks on their customers.

When you see dark patterns in use in the wild, grab a screenshot and tweet it out with the hashtag #darkpatterns. Mention the company behind it to shame them a little and retweet other #darkpatterns tweets you see. Hopefully if companies can see that people consider this unethical, they'll consider adopting more honest design patterns.

The good companies will, anyway. The bad ones will come up with something even more nefarious... which we'll have to call "even darker patterns."


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