Not Evangelism

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Dark Patterns and Professional Ethics

In some industries, professional organisations award a chartered status that recognises an individual's professional competence and credentials. This status is typically awarded on the basis of a number of years of experience, and an assessment of professionalism. Many contain some ethical element; a formal code of conduct, for instance. For some industries, in particular the older professions such as accountancy and surveying, achieving chartered status is not just a significant milestone in one's career, it is a requirement for progression in the industry; an expected component of career progression.

BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT (formerly known as British Computer Society), recognises chartered IT professionals on a similar basis, but in our industry it is less of a requirement for career progression than in other professions. Although I know of a few friends and colleagues that have achieved their charter (and jolly well done them), my experience is that becoming chartered is the exception rather than the rule. In some senses, this reflects the relatively young nature of our industry, as much as the rapidly changing disciplines that form our profession. But I think it's a shame that we don't - not yet, at any rate - formally expect such high standards of our profession.

It hardly needs to be said that this situation doesn't preclude us from conducting ourselves in a professional manner, of course, and I have worked with a great number of colleagues that have tremendous integrity. Indeed,  I think there's certain levels of professionalism required or expected from us, including sometimes standing up to our clients.

At the UX Brighton 2010 conference on Monday, Harry Brignull gave a presentation on Dark Patterns, where he identified the kind of dirty tricks sometimes seen on websites, such as:
  • "helpfully" selecting default options on radio groups that may not be beneficial to the user
  • sneak into basket - adding items to a user's basket unasked
  • anti-scan trick questions - deliberately obscuring the meaning and intent of an input field, such as disguising an opt-out as a nationality question.
You can read more about Harry's expanding collection of Dark Patterns on the website.

At the end of his talk, Harry discussed whether the designers of these pages knowingly and deliberately used these techniques, and raised the question of whether they should have exercised some code of ethics to avoid this behaviour. In other words, should the designers and usability professionals have said No to their client, and declined to participate in such unethical behaviour?

I've been thinking about this question, and trying to put myself into the situation of the designers and developers in these cases. On the one hand, I hope that I would stand up for what I consider to be right; champion the ethical course, according to my own personal code of conduct. I would certainly like to believe that if I were in the situation of being employed to use these dirty tricks, I would have argued against them with my employer or client.

Am I being naive? In the current economic climate, a job is a job, and it would take a strong, self-confident (not to say financially solvent) individual to walk away from a project that required them to work in a manner that didn't sit right with their ethics. I'm sure that many people, perhaps the more junior members of the team, or those with families and dependants, would find it more prudent to put their ethical concerns to one side in preference to losing their income. It comes down to an individual's personal situation.

Would membership of a professional body help in this scenario; would chartered status pull any weight with the client? Or would it take something as heavy-handed as regulation to prevent these techniques from being used, and so avoid putting our professionals in the difficult position of choosing ethics over income?

What Dark Patterns have you seen on the web? And, as a UX professional, what ethical stance would you take on this subject? How would you balance your financial needs with your professional ethics? Leave your comments below.

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