Have you ever sat in front of the television and watched those late-night infomercials? Have you ever, while watching those infomercials, looked down at the electric can-opener you bought the night prior and thought to yourself, “How was I convinced to buy this?”
Well, maybe you’re a crazy cat person and the electric can-opener was a necessary step for you to keep pace with the exciting lifestyles of your seven cats. Or maybe, just maybe, you succumbed to the manipulative psychology that’s used to sell such products to unwitting cat owners. So you jump on the computer, prepared to write a stern email asking for your money back, but unbeknownst to you that same manipulative psychology is even more prevalent online than on television.
It’s very likely that you’ve come across some of these techniques online before. It might be the difficult process of unsubscribing from a mailing list. Or the impossible task of getting a service representative to close your account when all they want to do is upsell you. These practices are called dark patterns and the web is plagued with them. Although there are many established types of dark pattern, they can broadly be considered as any practice that employs manipulation to benefit the business at the expense of the customer.
Some of these practices have become so commonplace that they are no longer seen as manipulative and have become an accepted part of online business conduct. Forced continuity is one such example. Upon signing up, many paid digital services automatically set your account up for recurring billing, to be charged a monthly amount indefinitely till such a time as you cancel the service. If you were to forget that you’d signed up for the service, then your estate would be paying for it well into the future. But these services can be even more manipulative. They can lure you in with the promise of one or even several months of free service before they charge you. In this instance, even if you’re dissatisfied with the service you’re likely to forget that you eventually have to pay for it. You hit that renewal and the business makes their money.
But what if you do remember? What if you’re well aware that you’re about to be charged for another month of sub-par streaming service, so you decide to cancel before they get your hard-earned cash? Well, businesses can (and often do) employ another dark pattern called the roach motel. The roach motel is possibly the earliest of the dark patterns and comes from a time well before the invention of the internet. A wayward traveller would stop at a hotel to rest for the evening and book a room with the clerk. Upon entering his room, the traveller finds it filled with roaches and immediately returns to the clerk to ask for a refund, but is promptly told that there are no refunds.
The roach motel refers to any service that is easy to get into and difficult to get out of. In the case of our traveller, it’s very easy to get a room out of the clerk but impossible to get out of it once he’s found it doesn’t meet his expectations. The same applies to digital services. Sites like Facebook and Amazon ensure it’s incredibly easy to create an account, but should you decide to close your account, the process is vague and time consuming. It wasn’t even until recently that Facebook allowed users to close their accounts; it used to be you could only “deactivate” your account, leaving it in a suspended state.
So let’s take these two dark patterns, forced continuity and the roach motel, and see how they work in conjunction with one another. You have a service that is incredibly easy to get into; there might even be a free month or two as a signing bonus. You provide your payment details and away you go. It doesn’t take long, though, to realise that the service doesn’t meet the standards you expect, so you decide to cancel. This leads you down the rabbit hole, jumping from webpage to webpage trying to work out how to close your account. Before you know it, you’re talking to a sales representative who’s trying to sign you up to receive the newest electric can-openers monthly, while you’re desperately trying to convey that your cats have preferred dry food all along. The business has your money, and you have a pretty awful user experience.
So, what’s the flipside to all this? What’s the benefit of being able to identify a dark pattern?
Well firstly, as consumers, we’re able to identify when we’re being manipulated, which empowers us to make better choices about what services we get involved with. But more importantly, as UX designers we’re able to use the same psychological principles to influence users positively. By understanding how a user thinks when they sign up or depart from a service, we can create services that are in line with their expectations, leaving the user with an overall positive experience, and not a mountain of electric can-openers they don’t need.