Not Evangelism

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Dark Patterns and Customer Awareness

In website design, the term anti-patterns is used to describe those foot-in-mouth practices that result from laziness, ineptitude or simple mistakes on the part of the designers. They create a bad user experience for no other reason than the designers got it wrong. Anti-patterns serve neither users nor usability practitioners.

By contrast, Harry Brignull describes dark patterns as those website design patterns that use a "solid understanding of human psychology against users".  They're used on websites that are in some way deliberately designed to trick the users. Examples include sneaking products into the online basket, or knowingly obfuscating the intent of dropdowns in order to sell more (more insurance, in Harry's example of Trick Questions).

Dark patterns seem to deliberately mislead, or trade on knowledge of user's on-line habits.

What's so wrong with dark patterns?

From one perspective, nothing.

There's no mystery to the concept of upsell; that companies want to sell more of their products. That's simple business. That's good business.

Over at Usability Post, Dmitry Fadeyev has written two articles on the motives for bad design, citing the example of webpages so cluttered with ads and popups that their usability is reduced.  The point he makes is that those webpages are that way not through ineptitude, but through design; knowing that there is revenue to be made from advertising clicks, the website designers have made conscious decisions to include the elements that increase business at the cost of the user's experience.

Dmitry argues that design principles are often deliberately broken (by including attention-grabbing ads, cluttering up the page, for instance), because there are business reasons or benefits to do so. In the second part of his article, he considers a comment from Don Norman's classic Psychology of Everyday Things, where Don cites the example of chairs in a cafeteria made deliberately uncomfortable in order to discourage people from lingering in the cafeteria. Don considers this successful design, as the design criteria - of throughput, essentially, preventing people from staying over long in a space when they ere - were met.

We're familiar with this practice in our physical world. The chairs in MacDonalds are uncomfortable because the business model relies on high volume, rapid turnaround; they don't want people to stay. We're also familiar with marketing practices of opt-out boxes in the small print of application forms, often following opt-in boxes to confuse scan readers.  And yet these practices are tolerated - are in some way acceptable, in their way - because they're known, familiar.

These and other upsell practices, possibly because they are known, are not mysterious; they're in the public domain. We know about them; we're wise to the practices.  Publicising these tactics; informing and educating users about them has made the tactics less sneaky. Or perhaps no less sneaky, but somehow more palatable because they're known, expected, understandable.

Awareness of dark patterns demystifies them

We can achieve the same results for dark patterns. We can defuse dark patterns by revealing them; demystifying them. Once we know what to look for, we can neutralise their more poisonous effects.

This demystification is one of the things that Harry seeks to achieve through his website; to inform users of the practices out there. Because sneaky tactics need to be revealed.  Perhaps that's the only way to do this; to inform people of the tricks that can be got up to on the web.

I'm not advocating these practices. I'm not saying that usability professionals should embrace these principles; in another article, I'll have some things to say about professional ethics. And I'm not saying that we should expect little from our users; but it is, I think, our responsibility as ethical professionals to educate our users to some level.

Because awareness is a good thing. When a user's experience jars because of these bad practices, we should expect them to realise it, and to acknowledge it for what it is: simple business. And it becomes the user's choice to do business with the companies that use these practices.

But let's do our part as usability professionals to ensure that it is an informed decision.

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