The Internet Made Me Do It
Find clarity amidst confusing designs
When was the last time a website prompted you to sign up for something like a newsletter or a service, and rather than simple “Yes” and “No” buttons, you saw something like this:
The ‘Yes’ option here seems far more attractive than the judgmental rejection option, which reads, “No thanks, I don’t like delicious food”.
This is known as “confirmation shaming”, but let’s refer to it as The Button Bully. It’s meant to make you feel uneasy about saying ‘no’ to signing up, joining in, or clicking on an offer.
What about the last time you waited for a website or app to load and you saw a progress bar like this:
At first you may have thought it was actually showing you how far along the load was … but then when the bar filled up, it suddenly started from the beginning again.
This is known as a fake progress bar, but let’s call it The Road to Nowhere. It’s just an animation that doesn’t actually relate to anything going on behind the scenes. Sometimes it’s used to mask a slow webpage, while other times it’s used to intentionally slow you down or change your mind.
The Button Bully and The Road to Nowhere are just two examples of what are known as dark patterns.
Dark patterns are design tricks based on human psychology that are used to provoke or manipulate people into signing up for something, buying something, or giving away more personal information than they thought or intended.
Common dark patterns may include the use of particular colours, placement of buttons, unclear texts, or incomplete information.
There’s a whole community of people who are dedicated to spotting dark patterns where they pop up, and sharing them with others.
If you want to know more, you can find an informational video about dark patterns here.
Companies are increasingly designing and using dark patterns in order to get us to make one decision or another. Sometimes these tricks are obvious, but other times they’re harder to notice.
One subtle example is when you’re looking for a hotel and you see red text reading, “In high demand!” (not once, but twice) and that this hotel was already booked several times in the last day, so you’d better hurry and book the room because it’s “risk free”. This is the “last available room” and by the way, three other people already have it in their shopping cart.
Why do you suddenly feel a sense of urgency? Is your heart beating faster? Is your credit card out of your wallet already?
This is a classic example of the dark pattern called FOMO (fear of missing out).
The reason tech companies use these design tricks is because they work – they get us to click, subscribe, and buy more often, sometimes when we weren’t even intending to.
The more we are aware of the subtle prompts and manipulations embedded in the websites we use, the more savvy and informed we become as users.
Once the dark patterns come to light, you can spot them immediately and won’t fall into the trap of doing something you didn’t mean to.
For the same reason you don’t want to be tricked into responding to spam or phishing emails, you don’t want to fall prey to dark patterns.
Check out this dark pattern that’s used by LinkedIn to import your contacts list.
Which One Is Which?
There are many design tricks used by tech companies to get you to click, stick around, and buy. We’ve already covered three of these in this article: The Road to Nowhere, The Button Bully, and FOMO. Now, let’s test your knowledge to see if you can tell them apart!
Can you figure out the name of each dark pattern?
You’re searching for flights, and as the page loads, you see a colourful, animated circle that looks like it’s spinning. What is this an example of?
The Road to Nowhere
You see an ad to sign up for a company newsletter that offers two buttons: one says “Yes, I want better productivity” and the other says “I love wasting time”. What is this an example of?
The Button Bully
You’re shopping online and you see a message that says, “Hurry, only 6 left at this price!” What is this an example of?
You’re on a website searching for a link to download a piece of software. You see a big banner that says “Download Now” and click it, only to find that it was an advertisement to download a different product. What is this an example of?
Road to Nowhere
When filling out a form, you see options that use inconsistent and therefore confusing language like, “Please do not send me details of product and offers” followed by, “Please send me details of products and offers.” What is this an example of?
You can learn about more types of dark patterns here.
What Can I Do?
You might be questioning what you can do in all of this. The truth is that tech companies are at fault in the matter of dark patterns, and it’s up to them to change their practices. In fact, lawmakers in the US and UK are considering legislation to ban the use of dark patterns. But there are a number of things you can do to assert your rights and help your community.
1. Recognise Dark Patterns
The first thing you can do is simply be aware of dark patterns. Read about the different types here, and follow the Twitter feed or the hashtag to keep up on current deceitful designs. Tell your friends, co-workers, parents and children, so that they are all in on the secret.
2. Screenshot and Share
Take screenshots anytime you come up against dark patterns online, and share them with your community (omitting any personally identifiable details – privacy first!). If you post your experience on social media, consider using the hashtag #darkpattern so that others can easily find your post and learn from your experience.
Screenshot commands vary depending on your device or operating system, so be sure to search on DuckDuckGo for the right command for you. Some phone models allow you to swipe down on the screen with three fingers, for example.
3. Make Your Voice Heard
The simple act of “screenshot and share” not only helps inform your friends and family, but can also help create a productive discussion with the tech company directly. Send emails, write Tweets, and let tech companies know that you see what they’re doing and you don’t like it. You can ask them to stop. When companies are made aware of their mistakes, there’s a chance they might change them.
4. Be Present in the Moment
There are many types of dark patterns out there and new ones are regularly being developed. A good way to tackle these types of tricks is to get into the habit of slowing down, taking a step back, and asking critical questions. If there is a countdown clock on a purchase page, ask yourself, “Is this really urgent?” If you find yourself clicking a button when you didn’t really want to, think about the wording on the buttons or the colours used by the designer. And as long as you continue to share your experiences with your friends and family, the lessons you learn can help others, too.
5. Vote with Your Taps
If you don’t feel like your feedback is being heard, there’s something really powerful you can do: use a different website or app. If you’ve communicated that you’re unhappy with something a website or app is doing and then actually stop using it or uninstall it – and enough people do it – they’ll notice.