Dark Patterns: Terms & Conditions Apply

Dark patterns is a phrase used to describe design principles that attempt to influence or shift your behaviour in a specific and desired direction.

We experience these dark patterns everyday. On the web, and via our digital media. Sometimes these examples are glaring, other times so successfully subtle as to make them nearly invisible.

Even when these dark patterns are super annoying, we somehow tolerate and barely notice them, a sign perhaps of their pervasiveness.

This game, Terms & Conditions Apply, is a great example that illustrates how dark patterns work.

It’s difficult to describe the above game without experiencing it, so please do take a moment to experience it. While that experience may not be foreign, it may also be mildly frustrating, as it evokes the intention of dark patterns.

Dark patterns may have tipped over into the realm of cliché, a combination of their corruption and commonality. Corrupt as the method is literally designed to corrupt your intent and attention. Commonality as dark patterns are becoming so common on the web that we may be developing immunity.

Assuming your score in the above linked game was not that bad?

Perhaps dark patterns are an evolution of search engine optmization?

SEO was and remains a(n albeit decreasing) practice in which a website is designed primarily for a robot audience (search engines) rather than human. The logic of the content and layout prioritized for search engine consumption rather than a human reader (who is secondary).

Dark patterns extends this design practice by focusing on the needs of the publisher rather than the user. Rather than being served by the content, the user is being manipulated by it. If you read that sentence and shrugged that demonstrates how dark patterns are already becoming a fabric of our culture.

Yet just because something is pervasive, does not mean it should be embraced or even tolerated. That we’re collectively recognizing dark patterns when we experience them is significant.

It helps to break down what is involved in dark patterns, and why they can be effective, or conversely, what we can do as users to mitigate their effectiveness. Step one is just recognition, but step two is understanding their mechanics.

Dark patterns are user interfaces that benefit an online service by leading users into making decisions they might not otherwise make. Some dark patterns deceive users while others covertly manipulate or coerce them into choices that are not in their best interests. A few egregious examples have led to public backlash recently: TurboTax hid its U.S. government-mandated free tax-file program for low-income users on its website to get them to use its paid program; Facebook asked users to enter phone numbers for two-factor authentication but then used those numbers to serve targeted ads; Match.com knowingly let scammers generate fake messages of interest in its online dating app to get users to sign up for its paid service. Many dark patterns have been adopted on a large scale across the web.

In this paper, the researchers note that dark patterns are an extension of growth hacking (and SEO) that emphasize containment followed by monetization.

The weaponization of social media is a concern that our society has been wrestling with, but with dark patterns we can see where the bleeding edge pushes the techniques and tolerance for these tactics.

While there are technical responses being developed…

The larger answer will inevitably regulation.

Yet as per usual regulators lag behind dark patterns, and the policy debate on what to do about it is in its infancy.

We’re still at that preliminary stage of educating people about a phenomena they’re already actively experiencing on a daily basis.

Perhaps there’s solace in the idea that now you’ve been primed to dark patterns you too will notice them everywhere?

Jesse Hirsh

Jesse Hirsh