Shining a light on the dark patterns that manipulate us daily

The latest episode of For Tech’s Sake examines the deceptive UX designs that dupe us all.

The term ‘dark patterns’ was coined by user experience (UX) designer Harry Brignull to describe something we, as users, encounter every day. They are the deceptive design practices that have been crafted to intentionally trick us into doing things that are to the advantage of the supplier and, often, counter to our intentions.

Brignull has an entire Hall of Shame shining a light on dark patterns and, as a pioneer of the term, has laid out the examples on his dedicated website, Deceptive.design. They include misdirection, trick questions, hidden advertising, premium models that are easy to opt in to but hard to opt out of, and one practice named after Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg: privacy Zuckering. (This is when a user is duped into publicly sharing more information than intended.)

While we, as savvy users, may joke about pre-ticked boxes, or the game of whack-a-mole we have to play when booking flights, dark patterns should be taken seriously. Not just by users, but by designers too – because regulators are closing in. ‘Dark patterns’ were highlighted in the EU’s upcoming Digital Services Act. When this comes into effect, platforms are going to have to ensure their interfaces don’t intentionally mislead users.

Unfortunately, while ‘user-centred design’ is a common refrain among commercial teams, the practice, more often than not, centres the business model’s needs and not the user’s.

Prof Owen Conlan, a research lead at Adapt, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre focused on digital content, described dark patterns as something of “an online con artist”.

“Some of it can be deliberate activity to try and get more data from you,” he said, “and the other side might be just to try and upsell.”

However, Conlan does not believe UX designers are always setting out to deliberately deceive users for nefarious ends. “Many times they’re focused on their business case. But their business case isn’t necessarily thought all the way through to the non-desirable parts for them as a business.”

What this means is the user experience is keenly optimised for what’s good for the business and falls down when users start to do things that aren’t favourable, such as opting to end a subscription or to restrict their data sharing.

Conlan spoke more about dark patterns in the latest episode of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and the HeadStuff Podcast Network.

He also explored how AI could be used to amp up these bad practices, and speculated on the future dark patterns that could be enabled with this emerging technology.

“We have to think about these logical extremes and say OK, this is not somewhere we want to go,” said Conlan.

However, there are bright spots in the conversation, which also asks how personalisation and push notifications might be improved with the addition of empathy.

Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts, and subscribe for more.

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