A puff of smoke in a black void

Fighting the Dark Pattern

Making a case against willfully dishonest design

In software design, it’s often our focus to identify and eradicate design patterns that hinder our users’ ability to complete a task. We go to great lengths to learn from them, document better solutions, and enforce good design in every step of a web project, and we do this in an effort to avoid unintended inefficiencies and lack of clarity. But what about design patterns that are intentionally inefficient or unclear? In this article, I hope to arm you with the knowledge and the mindset necessary to push back against such patterns.

Going Dark

Dark patterns, a term coined by Harry Brignull, are user interface features designed to be inefficient and lack clarity. In other words, they are meant to be patently dishonest. When an online store includes add-on items in your cart by default, that’s a dark pattern. When a mobile ad’s design makes you think your phone screen is dirty so you inadvertently tap on it to “clean” it, that’s a dark pattern. When a social network tricks you into giving it permission to send multiple spammy, disruptive emails to all your contacts on your behalf, that’s a very dark pattern.

As designers and developers, we are bound to come across these patterns. Some of them will be in our own proposals, where we might innocently believe we’re doing right by our users. Other times, we’ll find them in product requirements defined by stakeholders, or in third-party plugins we’re asked to integrate in our project. Wherever we may find dark patterns in our work, we should aim to identify them, bring them to our team’s attention, and pursue better alternatives.

Know Thy Enemy

In order to fight dark patterns effectively, first we need to learn more about them. DarkPatterns.org’s Types of Dark Patterns page is an excellent introduction to the most common dark patterns you’ll see out there. I highly recommend bookmarking that page because these patterns are not always easy to identify. When a requirement comes across your desk that smells funny, that page can help you figure out exactly what’s wrong with it. That said, this list is not the be all and end all dark pattern resource. If you’re on Twitter, make a point of checking the #darkpattern hashtag, a sometimes amusing and always infuriating repository of dark pattern call-outs by real users, in real time.

YouTube has a great collection of videos, both recordings of presentations and those of the produced variety, all discussing this topic.

Why Are They Used?

It’s the same reason that manipulative practices have existed for millenia: sometimes deception is either the easier way or the only way to get what we want; other times, going through the trouble of obfuscating functionality is preferred over letting you accomplish a task. In a nutshell, dark patterns are used when business interests are at odds with user interests. For example, if you have a webapp that’s losing users in droves because of a recent privacy scandal, you might be tempted to make it very difficult to close an account, thereby reducing the number of closed accounts that you have to report to shareholders.

It’s important to note that not everyone who proposes a design pattern you know to be dark is necessarily doing so because they themselves are manipulative. It’s quite possible they’ve been manipulated themselves, either because they’ve seen that pattern work for their competitors, or someone shared the pattern with them in a way that obfuscates its manipulative nature. It might just be part of some third-party software or service that promises nothing but good things. However they may have learned about it, approaching the matter with empathy and respect will go a long way towards arriving at a better (and hopefully benign) solution.

Building a Case Against Dark Patterns

Dark patterns are designed to be very effective at accomplishing a goal based on short-term metrics, e.g. rate of newsletter sign-ups or number of add-on items sold. Chances are that not implementing the pattern will result in lower performance according to these metrics, so it’s not a fight that’s easily won in those specific terms. Instead, arguing against a dark pattern will require a re-framing of the conversation. That is, of course, easier said than done, but it gives you a fighting chance.

The most effective strategy we’ve found is to shift focus towards the long-term impacts of implementing the pattern. Here are some examples of this:

  • Piling add-on items in a shopping cart by way of obfuscating the opt-out nature of these items makes a person feel cheated. Why would anyone choose to spend their money at a store that cheats them out of more than they intend to spend?
  • Making it deliberately difficult for you to close your account holds people and their data hostage. Why would potential new users trust us with their data knowing that we’ll aggressively disregard their wishes and their privacy if ever they decide to end their relationship with our service?
  • Getting people to inadvertently click on an ad by simulating a smudge on the screen makes people feel tricked and frustrated. What does it say about a product or service when your first exposure to it is the result of having been tricked?

There’s an underlying theme here, and that is this: Employing manipulative practices adversely affects our relationship with our customers and actively erodes our brand. Dark patterns leave a tough stain on a brand’s reputation, and it’s an important question to ask stakeholders whether the short-term gains are worth the long-term —and sometimes irreversible— damage to an organization’s reputation. It might also prove useful to quote one of the most well-known and respected investors of our time:

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently.
Warren Buffet

A quality vs quantity argument can also prove useful:

  • Which is a more valuable audience: One made up of a large volume of people who were tricked into signing up and feel annoyed to see your newsletter show up in their inbox, or one made up of a smaller number of people who willingly signed up to your newsletter and are enthusiastic about what you have to say? I promise you the latter is more likely to open your newsletter and click on your CTAs.
  • Which is a more valuable customer: The person you tricked into buying that $15 add-on and who now feels cheated, or the one who didn’t opt in to the add-on when given a clear, informed choice and who feels they've been treated fairly? The latter is more likely to want to do business with you again.

You can come up with solid arguments against dark patterns if you keep your eye on the underlying strategy: steering the conversation away from short-term gains and toward long-term impacts. In our experience, this is your best bet in the fight against dark patterns.

Do Right By Your Users

Software can be a powerful tool and, as such, should be wielded with care. Designers and developers are compelled to make ethical choices in the ways we craft all aspects of our software, and a firm understanding of how our practices can work against our users is as important as understanding the ways in which we can help them. Now go forth, and fight the good fight.

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