Not Evangelism

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Dark patterns 3: exploiting careless users

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 one of Harry's examples).

Dark patterns trade on knowledge of user's on-line habits. In an earlier article, I wrote about how dark patterns can be considered acceptable business practice, but that as usability professionals, we must ensure that customers are informed about them. In this article, I'm wondering whether dark patterns successfully exploit users because when online, people are simply more trusting than they ought to be.

Users are not cautious enough when shopping online

People approach shopping on the web quite differently than they do shopping in person; on the web shopping is quick, easy, impersonal.  This remove from the reality of traditional shopping is the great asset of e-commerce, and its great problem too. People turn to the web for convenience, speed, ease of access (and, often, better pricing and choice).  No one should, however, treat buying on the web any more lightly than they do buying person; in both transactions monies are exchanged and contracts are entered into.

Yet we're all guilty of it all; we all use the web for convenience, because we're in a hurry.  That haste inevitably means we're going to be less cautious about the things we do. And we tend to take it less seriously; because the web is a non-physical medium, we tend to think that it has fewer consequences than physically shopping (or signing a contract, or whatever). The fact is that shopping on the web is a non-physical interaction with the same physical consequences (that's the attraction!).  We cannot take e-commerce any more lightly than we would going into a physical store and buying something.

Taking the web seriously; treating it with more respect

In fact, we should all take the web more seriously. We all need to be more cautious with online shopping, not laissez-faire about it. Having purchased goods or services online, it's often harder to get out of our sales contract or return faulty goods. Not because the legal structures are particularly different, but because internet shoppers are several steps removed from the stores that supply the items we buy.  If we want to return goods, we have to use a postal or delivery service (once removed) to get them back to the seller and then - if necessary - chase the returns by email or telephone (twice removed).

There are no fewer consequences to buying online than there are to buying offline. So we all need to read before we click; we need to make the effort to check the question we're answering, what's in our basket, exactly what we're paying for. Those times when we don't - which is often - are what dark patterns capitalise upon.

The phrase caveat emptor - let the buyer beware - has never been more relevant.

Help users to recognise and avoid dark patterns

Good user experience goes beyond avoiding anti-patterns and dark patterns; it actively supports users in areas we know them to be susceptible to manipulation. Educating users about the tricks that might be played upon them is a part of the whole. In addition, we need to consider safeguards that our websites do not accidentally manipulate our users. We need to be cognizant of our users' vulnerabilities and design our websites to limit the effect of those vulnerabilities.

Is any of the website's wording less clear than it could be? Does our helpfulness with suggestions of related products (and our natural drive for upsell) ever cross the line? In providing great online experience, are there off-line processes that, while necessary, are more difficult to use than they might be?

Knowing that users are susceptible to these situations, our job as interaction designers and usability professionals is not to exploit. Rather than using these traits of e-commerce against our users we should be helping them to deal with the consequences.

Understanding our users makes us better equipped to serve them. And that doesn't just mean giving them what they want; it's also about saving them from themselves. We have to ensure that our designs help prevent users falling foul of the various pitfalls that dark patterns exploit. Because we don't want our website to appear on the Dark Patterns website, even if it's by accident rather than design.

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