Is there a bright side to dark patterns?

by Alex Baxevanis on 4 April 2018

I want to take you for a trip to the dark side. More specifically, the evil world of "dark patterns" - things you can put in your design to trick and manipulate users.

For example, trying to instil a fake sense of urgency - like this offer that seems to be "expiring soon" but keeps popping up in your inbox every week.

Or this cancellation page from Beer52 (my favourite monthly beer delivery service) which does everything it can to stop you from closing your account, including getting you to skip your next delivery, changing your delivery frequency, or forcing you to call them if you really want to cancel:

Anyone ever fallen for something like this? Many of us have, including me, even though as a designer I should know better.

But what if I was to tell you that one of the things that I’ve designed that I’m the most proud of actually follows a dark pattern?

I was leading a project for UCAS - the organisation that manages a centralised admissions process for all universities in the UK.

We were in a part of their office that looked like a hangar, with bare walls, no heating and a leaking room. It was a hastily arranged space because we had an important deadline to hit. We had to redesign and rebuild a critical system in only a few weeks before university results come out.

In the midst of looking at requirements, I came across something about people being able to cancel their application and close their account online, which for some legal reason they had to offer. I asked one of the business analysts working on the project to show me how it worked in practice.

This is what it looked like in the previous system:

There are a lot of things wrong with this page, not least that the most important consequence ("you're not going to university this year") isn't obvious. In fact, it places more emphasis on the fact that you're not going to get a refund.

What's worse, when people selected 'yes', they were instantly logged out of this system, redirected to a blank screen, and there was nothing else they could do. It's no surprise that a massive 40% of people who cancelled did this without understanding the consequences. They then rang contact centre to ask for their application to be reinstated, which was a complex project involving recovering database backups. In the meanwhile, the university might have given your place to someone else.

Dark patterns to the rescue

Why did people do it? Turns out they had an incorrect mental model - they thought for example that if they wanted to apply to a different university they had to cancel their initial application. Or they got one rejection and thought they had no hope.

So here's what we did: instead of yes/no answer, we asked people on the form why they were trying to cancel their application. We let them choose between the one valid reason for doing this ("I don't want to go to university this year") and a couple of "decoys" - things that people wrongly thought should lead to cancelling their application.

If people selected one of those "decoy" options (e.g. "I want to cancel in order to apply to a different university"), instead of letting them cancel their application, we gave them advice and signposted them to the right thing to do instead.

Wait a minute, doesn't this look like one of the dark patterns I showed you earlier? But it's not so dark anymore, is it? We've just helped send one more person to university.

And it did actually work. After a year of working with the new system, the number of people who accidentally cancelled their application dropped to almost zero.

Things aren't always so black & white.

You've got the power

A couple of weeks ago there was a rumour making the rounds online about Instagram. People claimed that when you get likes on Instagram, they choose to not always notify you so that you keep opening the app to find out if you have more likes.

Instagram strongly denied this, saying that any delays are due to technical issues, but even if the rumour was true, there's another side: do you always want to be bombarded by distracting notifications or should a platform be moderating them?

As a designer, you have a lot of techniques in your toolbox, and the power to use them in both a positive and a negative way. So rather than hiding behind "avoiding dark patterns" or "following best practice", you should always be thinking about the end goal. Are you encouraging positive behaviour change, or working to sneak something in against people's best interest?

If you'd like to read more about the ethics of design:

For more on our work with UCAS visit our case study page or to discuss with us how to master the dark arts of UX, just say hello@webcredible.com.

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