Cracking Dark Patterns on Interfaces Designed to Trick You

The internet is full of webpages and resources that lure users into inadvertently doing something like signing up for a purchase or subscribing to a service.

Dark patterns lead users to deceptive interfaces and can be a cause of privacy concerns. Techniques that promote obscurity over clarity (of course without the user figuring it out) grab attention and eventually transition into a business advantage.

Apple's iOS 6 came with a few new features that the brand did not promote enthusiastically. For example, the Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA) assigned a unique identifier to each device to track browsing activity. This personal information proved useful for advertisers to target ads and caused significant privacy concerns among users.

Although Apple did include a way to disable the feature, it was not readily accessible in the privacy settings. Instead, the user had to go through a series of obscure options in the general settings menu.

The user has to select "About" in the "General" menu, then navigate next to the terms of service and license items and click a menu item listed as "Advertising."

Here, the only option in the advertising menu is "Limit Ad Tracking," set to "Off" by default.

If we take a closer look at the wording, it doesn't say "Ad Tracking – Off," but "Limit Ad Tracking – Off." Users are taking a gamble since ad tracking is actually on even when this switch is off. So, here 'off' really means 'on.'

Darkpatterns_apple
Image Source: theverge

This scenario is an excellent example of the Dark Pattern we're talking about in this blog.

What is a Dark Pattern?

A dark pattern is a user interface craftily designed to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do. This pattern may include buying software with their purchase, signing up for recurring billing, or even offering sophisticated options to sign out of this subscription.

Ill-intent fuels dark patterns; they are not mistakes. Implementing Dark Patterns might be morally unethical, but it is not illegal. Many marketing companies take undue advantage of this fact.

Dark Patterns have evolved with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they disregard the user's interests.

Surprisingly, Dark Patterns that play mind games with the user spring from the same rulebooks that enhance usability.

How do Dark Patterns Work?

People often skim websites and apps and make assumptions instead of reading every word. If a company wants to lure you into doing something, they can take advantage of this impatience by loading a page with misleading terms.

You can defend yourself by learning about some common Dark Patterns tricks used on the internet.

Playing with the Visibility of System Status 

Instead of displaying the critical system status info, many companies hide it. They achieve this with misleading labels, obtuse navigation, unwanted looping, and untimely messages. In short, 'beating around the bush.' 

A Message Doesn't Mean Every Word it says 

Messages with Dark Patterns are not direct. Instead of "speaking the user's language," the system uses "weasel wording." This phrase means that the message appears to say one thing while it says another without taking any responsibility.

Manipulate the User's Control and Freedom 

Dark Pattern designers take advantage of a user's natural capacity to make mistakes. Users accidentally complete actions that are beneficial to the host's objective.

Tricking Choices 

Marketing emails leverage the "tricking choices" technique all the time. After registering to access something on the web, it asks if you want to be included on a mailing list. This particular approach is tricky because users have to take explicit action to opt-in.

Chances are users who will be in a hurry, and a proportion of them won't even notice this text. Some websites make this choice for the user with the radio button for 'yes' preselected. Some sites don't call attention to this choice, tricking users into choosing something they don't want.

WTF is dark pattern design? | TechCrunch
Image Source: Techcrunch
The dark side of UX
Image Source: Newtidea

Forced Membership

Darkpatterns_paywall
Image Source: theverge

Opting for a 'FREE' basic membership is common on job sites that let users' benefit' from their services. After this, the job seeker goes through a few sign-up steps and starts searching for a job. When the search results are displayed, some not-so-appealing job postings appear along with one that looks appealing (based on your inputs for job parameters).

The weird thing is when the user clicks on "Apply," the job details and the application form don't appear. Instead, a payment page stares the user in the face asking them to upgrade to a premium membership.

Though this job search text may be available for free elsewhere, the portal discourages people from bypassing the payment page, copying the job description, and pasting it into a Google search to find the real source.

Another problematic direction is making the unsubscribe process simple but formatting the unsubscribe button to be invisible.

The dark side of UX
Image Source: Newtidea

Confusing the Reader is at the Helm of Everything 

Humans naturally hate boredom and confusion. There are countless ways to frustrate readers purposely; for example, one could publish reams of impenetrable legalese in tiny greyscale lettering, so no one delves deeper into the content and set the default to opt-in when people click 'ok.'

Image Source: Techcrunch

Adding in intentionally confusing phrases or confusing button/toggle design makes it impossible for the user to determine what's on and off without a closer look. Even opting out could mean opting into something you don't want.

The Fake Rush 

The notifications that appear just as you're contemplating booking a flight urging you to "hurry!" as there's only X number of seats left seem like an offer you can't refuse.

These persuasion and optimization tricks in the online marketing gameplay on people's FOMO, trying to rush them into transactions they didn't want in the first place. Thwarting the more rational and informed decision they might otherwise have made.

Exit - Best Western Hotel Universo
https://online-metrics.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Booking.com-booking-funnel-step-2.png
Image Source: online-metrics 

Leading enterprises' PR teams often claim to care about privacy immensely. They allege that they give people all the controls needed to manage their personal information, but there is no control with dishonest usability instructions. Opt-outs that look like a mirage in a desert feel more like a lock-in.

Companies indeed remain firmly in the driving seat and control the levers to user decisions. Since these tech giants dominate ad services, they can propagate consent-less data-mining that risks erosion of user rights on the internet.

Here are five friendless dark patterns our UX experts at Radiant Digital often notice online.

Bait and Switch 

Here, the users set out to do one thing but experience an undesired consequence instead. Microsoft’s misguided approach for Windows upgrades is a classic example.

Stop the Cap! » Time Warner Cable Customers Bait and Switched to ...
Image Source: Stopthecap

Forced Continuity 

This is similar to the Forced Membership we've already mentioned. Forced continuity is when a user is prompted for their credit card or payment information to avail of a free trial or a web service/benefit. The 'subscription auto renewal' option is hidden or is very hard to cancel. 

b: Forced continuity hiding the free offering deep, shown in red ...
Image Source: Research Gate 

Price Comparison Prevention 

The retailer makes it hard to compare an item's price with another, so buyers cannot make an informed decision. Retailers typically achieve this by creating different bundles where it is not easy to work out the unit price of the items within the bundles. 

price comparison prevention
Image Source: darkpatterns.org

Expanding Shopping Basket 

Also known as ‘negative option billing’ or ‘inertia shopping,’ this dark pattern sneaks an extra item into your cart when shopping online. This is established using a well-hidden or confusing opt-out button. This pattern can take the friendly form of shopping recommendations on some sites. 

Not giving the user control over what they add to their basket and not making the full price evident at every step of the buying process is a shopper’s nightmare. 

Image for post
Image Source: UXPlanet

Hidden Costs 

You get to the last step of the checkout process to discover some unexpected charges that have appeared, e.g., delivery charges, tax, care, and handling, etc.

4.Review_Order
Image Source: darkpatterns.org

Final Thoughts 

At Radiant, we believe the user comes first, and pages should be designed for an experience with transparency about the UI's intention instead of short-term profit.  

A shady UI leaves the user feeling defrauded, costing a company in the long term.  

At Radiant Digital, we help businesses design product or service interfaces that win over customers through delightful UX design and credibility, not through dark patterns. 

Here are some user-friendly alternatives to UX dark patterns that may interest you. 

Connect with our UX experts today to combat dark patterns in web design or keep your web pages dark pattern-free.