Written in May 2022 for my MSc New Media Design at Tilburg University.
What are Dark Patterns?
Dark Patterns are user interface (UI) elements that can influence a user’s behavior into doing something they did not mean to do. Usually, dark patterns benefit the designers’ goals and values, without consideration of the user’s or society’s best interests. Patterns are considered dark when the UI and choice architecture can nudge people in favor of the designer rather than the user.
Both mild and aggressive dark patterns can have consequences on user behavior and perception. Dark patterns can shape a user’s understanding, convince them to take actions that they normally would not, or lead them to over-share information. Dark patterns can take many forms (a list of all dark patterns will be further elaborated in the next section).
Dark patterns are so ubiquitous that Di Geronimo et al. (2020) demonstrated in their study that users might develop blindness to malicious design. Indeed, they discovered that most users have a hard time or are hesitant about detecting dark patterns. They suggest that nowadays, dark patterns are so common that people do not see differences between normal and deceiving interactions, or just do not consider them anymore. Finally, they explain that users are not marked by them because they presume to know about the mechanism.
What are some methods used for Dark Patterns?
Dark patterns are nudging designs that profit the makers by coercing, steering, or deceiving. It takes over people’s mental heuristics and uses cognitive biases against them. Persuasiveness is one reason why dark patterns are so effective.
Harry Brignull (2019) is the first to introduce dark patterns. In 2010, he created a crowdsourced website to sort out all the different kinds there are (darkpatterns.org). The objective is to raise awareness and to classify dark patterns into categories. Since then, his taxonomy of dark patterns has been critiqued, systematized, and expanded. One of the most recent studies is the one from Gray et al. (2018). From Brignull’s taxonomy, they proposed five different types of dark patterns: nagging, obstruction, sneaking, interface interferences, and forced action.
Reflection on ethical considerations
The human-computer interaction (HCD) community is usually looking toward more ethical design when it comes to usability and user interface. Nudging had originally a noble purpose, which was improving human well-being with positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions. However, with dark patterns, ethical considerations might be overridden by practical matters. With few legal rules or obsolete laws, people are left exposed and vulnerable to malicious design.
Di Geronimo et al. (2020) explain that it is hard to indeed put regulations regarding dark patterns. First of all, it is tricky to conceptualize how “dark” certain patterns are. It is a spectrum, and a clear classification is hard to establish. “What is a dark pattern” is a question open to interpretation. Second, there is a lack of knowledge on how persuasive dark patterns are. Gunawan et al. (2021) found that on average, there are seven instances of dark patterns in mobile apps. However, it is difficult to determine the level of change in users’ behaviors. Di Geronimo et al. (2020) finish by explaining that the nature of harm resulting from dark patterns is vague. It is unknown how detrimental dark patterns are. Without proper frameworks and laws, it remains challenging to design patterns that are ethical. Information on the extensive dark pattern mechanisms is dearly needed.
Di Geronimo, L., Braz, L., Fregnan, E., Palomba, F., & Bacchelli, A. (2020, April). UI dark patterns and where to find them: a study on mobile applications and user perception. In Proceedings of the 2020 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1–14). http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/3313831.3376600
Gray, C. M., Kou, Y., Battles, B., Hoggatt, J., & Toombs, A. L. (2018, April). The dark (patterns) side of UX design. In Proceedings of the 2018 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1–14). https://doi.org/10.1145/3173574.317410
Gunawan, J., Pradeep, A., Choffnes, D., Hartzog, W., & Wilson, C. (2021). A Comparative Study of Dark Patterns Across Web and Mobile Modalities. Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction, 5(CSCW2), 1–29. https://doi.org/10.1145/3479521
Harry Brignull. 2019. Dark Patterns. Technical Report. Harry Brignull Dark Patterns website, https://www.darkpatterns.org/