Online marketers have increasingly embraced user interface strategies engineered to encourage a certain response, a concept known as dark patterns. Just because everyone else is doing it doesn’t mean you should.
Of all the emails I get, the ones that are my biggest pet peeve are the fake replies.
Generally, the email subject line includes a “Re:” in front of it, and the message is designed so part of text is in blockquote, making it seem like a legitimate message I forgot to respond to. But if I do a search I realize the sender has never emailed me before about this topic—or at all. It’s a trick, with the goal of getting my attention.
This is a mild variant of a “dark pattern,” a user interface tactic intended to trick you into doing something. These design quirks are everywhere online these days and take numerous forms. Here are a few examples, in order of “darkness”:
A notification on the top of the page that isn’t real but is simply trying to promote something.
A newsletter sign-up box that tries to get you to apply by including decline language that slightly insults you or is hard to see.
An ad that can’t easily be removed from your screen because the “X” button to close it is obscured or doesn’t display immediately.
A free trial that converts to paid service without reminding you that the trial is ending soon.
A service that opts you into add-ons during the purchase process without telling you.
A cancellation page that makes it hard to leave a service by purposely making the language confusing, requiring you to jump through hoops, or requiring you to cancel by phone.
A service that convinces you to let it look at your contact list with the pretense of identifying your friends who are supposedly also on the service, then spams those friends with emails or text messages inviting them to join.
A service that charges your credit card for something you didn’t buy, because of some language in the fine print that allows it to.
I could keep going, of course. Such dark patterns are at the center of complaints about Facebook’s and Google’s approach to user privacy, and they helped generate discussion that led to the implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation this year. Microsoft is currently testing a dark pattern in Windows to discourage people from installing Chrome or Firefox.
The reason they’re so common is that they’re effective. Even the savviest internet users can get taken in by these tricks, because the easiest path isn’t the path that protects users’ privacy or keeps money in their pockets.
“This works because humans are lazy in the face of boring and/or complex-looking stuff,” writes TechCrunch contributor Natasha Lomas. “And because too much information easily overwhelms. Most people will take the path of least resistance. Especially if it’s being reassuringly plated up for them in handy, push-button form.”
If you’ve ever heard the term “growth hacking,” this is one way to do it—and it’s not the right way. Some have argued that dark patterns target vulnerable audiences, such as older users who might have trouble reading text in a light color or a small font size. Others note that these messages make a deal look a lot more attractive than it is—say, if a subscription service offers a free month for converting to an annual payment but then prorates the rest of the current month as part of the “free month.”
“The way that companies implement the deceptive practices has gotten more sophisticated over time,” UX designer Jeremy Rosenberg, who helps run the Dark Patterns website, explained to Ars Technica in 2016. “Today, things are more likely to be presented as a benefit or obscured as a benefit even if they’re not.”
In a world full of detailed analytics that explain how users act, and where interactions get smaller and smaller until they turn into “microinteractions,” it’s getting easier than ever to subtly trick someone into giving away something they don’t really want to give. And for association professionals working hard to build membership and maximize revenue, it might be tempting to take advantage of some of these techniques.
Don’t take the bait. Startups may be able to play this game, but the ethical costs are high. Associations are respected in their industries and shouldn’t risk their own credibility.
As I wrote recently, consumers increasingly are asking for transparency and honesty from the organizations they interact with online. To cater to that, you need to skip the sketchy shortcuts. Set the example you’d want to live by.