Four damnable examples of dark patterns

We start the new year how we mean to continue, by kicking ass and taking names. Here’s Rebecca Sentance with a follow-up to 2016’s Dark Patterns post, where we highlight the worst examples of manipulative navigation and tricksy UX.

The whole point of a ‘good’ user experience (UX) is to make things as easy and intuitive as possible for the consumer. That’s why UX and UI designers do what they do, right? The pinnacle of a good user experience is one that’s seamless and allows the user to quickly achieve their goal. Or, if they get stuck, they can easily find a way back to where they want to be.

But there’s a dark side to user experience which sets out to do something very different. Just as we have white hat and black hat SEO, or white hat and black hat hackers, there’s a ‘black hat’ equivalent of UX – and it’s known as ‘dark patterns’.

What is a dark pattern?

Dark patterns make use of all the same tricks and signals as good UX design, but instead of helping the user towards their goal, they confuse the user into doing something or paying for something that they might not have intended to.

If you’ve ever opted in to marketing communications when you meant to opt out, bought a subscription you didn’t want to purchase, or found it unreasonably difficult to unsubscribe from a newsletter, it’s very likely that there’s a dark pattern at work somewhere.

Dark patterns give UX a bad name, and they often leave the user feeling frustrated and cheated instead of satisfied with their experience. They’re also surprisingly prevalent, and many otherwise reputable businesses can be found making use of dark patterns.

But the more attention we draw to them, the more we can build awareness of why these design choices are bad, and educate people about how to avoid them. So today, I’m going to examine four reprehensible examples of dark patterns in action.

1) Auto-renew subscriptions (and tricky fine print): The Economist

This is a common one: the auto-renew subscription. It’s a membership or special offer that you sign up to for a limited period – but don’t forget to cancel in time, or you’ll be automatically charged the full, hefty price!

I’ve been around the internet long enough that I feel I’m wise to this trick, but I was recently caught out by The Economist, which caused me a lot of needless anxiety in the middle of a holiday. I signed up to a special offer of a 12-week print and digital subscription for £12, after which I would be charged the full price of £53.

I carefully calculated when my subscription would renew, and set a reminder a few days beforehand to make sure I was in good time. Then, weeks before I was planning to cancel, I got an email saying that The Economist had attempted to charge my card with the full subscription amount (which mercifully hadn’t gone through).

When I rang up to cancel, it transpired there had been some fine print hidden away in an email I’d received – not the order confirmation, but another email – which quietly gave my real, much earlier, renewal date.

Screencap of an email from The Economist giving details of the subscription a user just purchased. Down the side is a grey box titled 'Your order summary' which gives the start date of the subscription as 10/6/2017 and the end date as 26/8/2017. At the very bottom, the summary gives the date of the next payment as 12:00:00 AM on 1/8/2017. This is highlighted with a red box.

Not cool, Economist. Not cool.

2) False sense of urgency: Bookings.com

Sometimes dark patterns don’t trick you into doing something so much as create a false sense of panic and urgency that will rush people into making a snap decision, or into paying for something more expensive than they intended to because they didn’t feel they had time to weigh their options.

The interface on Bookings.com bombards consumers with ‘urgent’ messaging, making browsing and comparing prices on the website a stressful nightmare. “Just booked!” red badges pop up with regularity, making it seem as if rooms are selling out as you watch – when in reality there have been no bookings for several hours.

Screencap of an apartment listing on Bookings.com, which has a red label below its description reading 'Just booked!' Overlapping with this is a piece of text cropped from a screencap of the same listing, which reads 'Last booked: 7 hours ago'.

And if you come close to reserving a room but navigate away to compare other locations, the site will bombard you with pop-ups urging you to “Finish your booking!”

A pop-up from Bookings.com urging the user to finish their booking of 1 apartment for £550 from the 12th to the 14th December.

Bookings.com does some other damnable things with fine print and false ‘discounts’ which I don’t have room to go into here, but for a full dressing-down, check out this blog post by Roman Cheplyaka: How Booking.com manipulates you.

3) Sneaky credit ‘deactivation’: Skype

I’m not sure if there’s a more general term for this dark pattern or if it’s unique to Skype, but it’s a hell of a deceptive technique either way.

Once, I was on the point of making an international call through Skype when I noticed I had no credit balance, even though I was sure that I kept my account well-stocked with credit. Not having any time to figure this out, I hurriedly paid for £10 of additional credit – and then discovered that I did in fact have plenty of credit already in my account. So I’d just paid £10 for credit I didn’t need.

It turns out that Skype credit ‘deactivates’ after a certain period of time with no calls, at which point you have to go through a reactivation process that can take up to 15 minutes – not great if you have a time-sensitive interview.

Screencap of a FAQ on the Skype website asking 'How do I reactivate Skype Credit?' The FAQ specifies that Skype Credit might take up to 15 minutes to reactivate. Lower down, it details that Skype Credit will go inactive after 180 days of no use, and that two reminder emails will be sent, 7 days and 2 days before this happens.

Skype claims that it sends you reminder emails before this is due to happen, but a notification on the user’s actual account would be a lot more helpful. Unless what you want is for them to spend needless money on credit, of course.

4) Confusing cancel button: Facebook

Facebook is a master of dark patterns, and the number of ways it has devised to make users publish information they might not want made public is frankly mind-boggling.

This is just one version, and it’s an example of a very prevalent dark pattern: confusing or misleading button labelling. When you update your bio on Facebook, you select the Save button to commit your changes. Facebook then asks you whether you want to post your bio to your News Feed:

Screencap of the 'Edit Bio' section on Facebook. In the top right hand corner is a 'Save' button, with the user's new bio underneath it. At the bottom, the text reads 'Post your bio to News Feed?' The user is given the option to Cancel (left) or Post (right).

Confusingly, you’re given the option to Cancel or Post, which makes it seem as though your changes won’t be saved if you click Cancel. In fact, they already have been, but this isn’t at all evident until you navigate back to your profile and see that the bio has updated. Thanks, Facebook – I was having trouble oversharing on social media until you came along.

What damnable examples of dark patterns have you encountered in the wild? Vent your rage in the comments!

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Rebecca Sentance is the Editor of digital marketing websites ClickZ and Search Engine Watch. Having spent most of her life on the internet, she has somehow managed to wrangle her way into writing about it for a living. When not publishing articles on digital marketing/SEO/UX, she can be found blogging about journalism on isitjournalism.wordpress.com or tweeting about nerdy things as @rainbowbex

2 Responses to “Four damnable examples of dark patterns

  • Thanks for including famous brands in your overview! Very useful for users to be aware of the possible tricks and for designers to learn what not to do!

  • I’ve noticed on certain shopping sites that if it looks like you’re going to navigate away, it pops up with a voucher to try to entice you to stay. Lately I’ve noticed these vouchers being time-limited, usually only 5-10 minutes.

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