Dark Patterns: The Crimes and Misdemeanors of Design

By Chris Nicholson, Guest Contributor , written on April 15, 2014

From The News Desk


Three people I know got mugged last month and one of them was me. The first guy was robbed at knife point at Market and 6th. The second got punched in the face before the contents of his backpack and wallet ran off down the street. Same neighborhood. In my case, the mugging happened online, and it was committed by a startup.

Naming the company would have professional repercussions for my team, so it'll remain pseudonymous. I'll call it Spambotlio. They have a cool service you pay for by the month. Signing up was easy. I thought I'd enjoy it, but didn't have time, and after three months, I decided to stop the subscription.

Their website, transparent about so many other issues, had no information about how to cancel membership. I sent them emails and got no response. I called them and was told to stop by the office. In the meantime, another month went by and I paid for it.

Finally, I visited their San Francisco branch. When I said I wanted to cancel, three men looked at me with disapproving eyes as one slowly handed me a slip of paper with an email address written on it. It was only slightly easier than leaving the Crips.

Designers have a word for what happened. It's called a dark pattern, and it's as intentional as a mugging. Dark patterns are deliberate acts of manipulative design whose intent is to push users toward choices that harm their interests. In my case, I was unable to cancel my subscription, and they extracted some money that should have been mine. If it had happened on the street, it would be a crime.

A lot of people, facing similar situations, just feel bad for a while and move on. Some make a fuss until they get their money back. I am hoping a third group will arise. Some day an enterprising attorney will make a career out of class-action lawsuits against unethical design. It's that bad.

Just because fools and their money are soon parted doesn't mean the fools deserve it. Dark patterns are like voodoo: They exert their powers invisibly using the hidden mechanisms of our minds against us. And that's bad business.

This post will discuss what a few dark patterns look like and why they work.

Let's step back a moment and define design: Design is a dialogue, mostly nonverbal, that companies enter into with users. Every choice they make about the shape, texture and functionality of their products and websites is an assertion, usually about what the product will or won't do.

Design presents users with choices (or in the case of dark patterns, obscures them). For example, the handle of a pitcher offers the choice of lifting and pouring some cylinder of clay; the default radio buttons on a website signal the possibility of buying insurance when you fly. (Guess what: The default is usually opt-in.)

With dark patterns, companies push users toward choices leading to the largest transfer of money from consumer to producer. It's not an exaggeration to say that ambitious brands aspire to levels of customer addiction rivaled only by heroin.

That's what customer stickiness is about -- not just meeting needs, but manufacturing and perpetuating them. Stickiness is a way of increasing the lifetime value of each customer, since it's less costly to upsell old customers than acquire new ones.

And stickiness is not just about loyalty and delightful UX. It's about putting obstacles between your users and the exit. Sometimes your users hang onto you, and sometimes you hang onto them. Anytime an organization makes entry easy and exit hard, that's a roach motel. If you knew how bad it was, you never would have checked in.

A slightly different example of bait and switch is the well-known game, Candy Crush Saga from King. In it, users are subject to various measures of coercive monetization, the most impressive being how the game transforms itself from one where skill counts into one where money counts. That is, it hooks you by allowing you to build your expertise, and then becomes arbitrarily hard even as it offers you the chance to pay to progress.

Tricks like that work great, especially with children, who often lack the judgment and self-control to resist the impulse buys that games suck them into.

Sure, every startup has skeletons, and behind every great fortune is a great crime. Facebook's early contact uploader is just one example of a notorious data grab.

Mike Monteiro, a great digital designer, gave a talk in Seattle on Monday pointing out how the design community is complicit in the dark patterns that serve business, and calling for them to change their ways. "We need to fear the consequences of our work more than we worry about speaking up," he said.

But calls for ethical design aren't going to change much. A few designers may refuse to abuse consumers, and businesses will hire others to take their place. They're hired guns, like lawyers and PR people (that's me). Trying to get them to stop creating dark patterns is like trying to get lumberjacks to stop cutting trees.

Dark patterns are a political problem that can only be solved with legislation. Online design, like outer space, is an unregulated area, a Wild West where coercive tactics are overlooked. Colorado legalized marijuana this year because smoking dope doesn't hurt other people. State legislatures and federal agencies should criminalize malicious design, because it does.

Until that happens, consumers will have to band together to protect themselves. Two sites -- and -- exist to makes those hard exits easier. The first shows you how to sidestep unwelcome mailing lists, the second how to delete your account from websites that no longer serve their purpose (if they ever did).

Good design improves user experience and conveys legitimacy, but many startups have fallen into the same metric-driven, revenue-maximizing trap as their larger corporate peers, treating users like dirt through dark patterns.

They're preying on a scattered, disorganized mass of consumers, most of whom suffer in silence and alone. The computer screen is an intimate avenue of abuse, where the law and general public don't know what happens and usually don't care. Maybe that will change.

While modern design has its origins in designers solving problems with physical things, much of it has moved online. It is embodied abstractly in the structures of websites, whose most visual element may be their font.

That's important, because software is a funny, boneless thing. It has none of the inherent "honesty" and self-explanation of physical things. Which means that we humans lack the reference points and benchmarks we normally rely on to hold software to account. Its lies are less visible, and much more pernicious.

(This article was inspired by many conversations with the designer Eric Pan.)

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Chris V. Nicholson, head of communications at the pre-order software maker Celery and a former reporter for The New York Times. The post went through PandoDaily’s usual editorial process.

[Image courtesy Reggie B]