‘Dark patterns’ sound like a malicious scheme designed by an international crime network. But as we discovered, just how evil they are though is open to debate.

Follow me young lady to the depths of the dark patterns.
Follow me young lady to the depths of the dark patterns. ( Getty Images )

 It’s a design strategy that prioritises the purpose of a platform at the expense of its user - "tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn't mean to" - Dark Patterns. Think the opposite of ‘user-friendly' or maybe just 'user-fiendish'...

There are a number of different dark patterns. We know this because there’s a website dedicated to exposing all of them, called, well, Dark Patterns, as per our opening quote.

My personal favourite is ‘roach motel.’ There’s only an entrance, no exit (a bit like The Godfather but less bloody). Example: when you create an Amazon account everything is nice and easy, but when you try to delete it THERE’S NO WAY OUT (there actually is a way out, it’s just super inconvenient and well hidden).

“That’s so messed up, I hate that, it’s evil,” we hear you say. But is it really? As the authors of this piece, we couldn’t agree on how evil we find dark patterns so we decided to have a debate here instead. 

F: As much as I would like to put all dark patterns into the deplorables basket, I believe the issue is much more complicated than that. One of the most common examples of a dark pattern is an e-commerce website that hides the true cost of a product until the very last page, which is checkout. If the UX (user experience design) was made in a way that the user could see the total cost of an item with tax, shipping and additional fees included, the likelihood of that user buying the item would be less. If you scale this to the entire website, we could be talking about a serious reduction in sales and revenue.

 D: So what? Obviously the seller (people, businesses, corporations) in the market will do everything in their power to maximise profits. Does that mean we let them? Most advertising is about exploiting the irrationality of human psychology anyway, but dark patterns are cheap shots. They’re not even trying to “convince” (manipulate) you like ads do. They are straight-up hiding information you are likely to look for (such as the ‘unsubscribe’ link under an email). In my opinion, they are unethical for sure. What if your shopping experience or work space was designed in this way, to undermine your interests and to prioritise your employer or seller? Wouldn’t you call this unethical? 

F: Agreed. The main goal is to increase revenue. As for our debate, I’m going to give you another example: Amazon One-click shopping makes it incredibly easy for users to buy anything they want on Amazon. The problem here is whether it’s in users’ best interests to spend more money on things they don’t need. From an ordinary user’s perspective, it simplifies the process and makes life easier. From Amazon’s perspective, it will increase their revenues as people will be keener to buy. Certain patterns you’d label as ‘dark’ could serve users’ desires but maybe not interests. If the user is not complaining, would it still count as unethical?

D: To answer your question, you are implying consumer consent, but that’s a complicated claim to make. One-click shopping wouldn’t be classified as a dark pattern. Dark patterns are things that are specifically designed to be cunning. That is simply bad design ethics. We’re not talking about a website that is so beautifully designed that people don't want to leave it, we’re talking about a website, let’s say, that hides the ‘close window’ button somewhere so you can’t easily leave. A real-life equivalent would be for the exit door to be hidden away in the most remote and dark corner of a building you don’t want to be in anymore. What do you think of that Furkan?

Furkan has left this conversation. 

D: Furkan?

Didem has also left this conversation. 

So what do you think? Dark patterns are inconvenient, that’s for sure, but would you go so far as to call them flat-out unethical? Or do you think we should come to expect such trickery in a world where our attention is the most sought-after commodity on the internet? 

Source: TRT World