The Dark Side of the Internet

Written by 9:00 am Business, Digital Focus, People Focus

Dark Patterns

The invention of the internet has undoubtedly enhanced and advanced society as a whole.  We have limitless access to information anytime, anywhere, to the point where we have more information flowing through society than any of us could ever hope to process or understand.  We connect with our social and professional networks, manage long-distance relationships and never feel out of the loop with platforms and instant and virtual communication tools.  The internet has bridged the divide of geographic borders, creating a global talent pool of resources, enabling anyone with an internet connection to work from anywhere.  The list of advantages and benefits of the internet goes on and on, but there is a ‘dark side’ to the internet, a topic that gets less of our attention. 

As you navigate the internet, think about the platforms, sites, apps, and tools you use from search engines, email applications, productivity and wellness apps.  These tools are quick, simple and easy to use and are an integral part of your life due to the value and utility they provide.  The reason these tools are free is to encourage mass use and adoption and to remove any barriers to participation (such as paying to use the service).  This means it’s our attention and data and behavioural insights that are being sold on these platforms.  This is not new news to anyone, and we enter into an unspoken agreement called a data value exchange – I’ll hand over some of my data or information or attention in return for access to a tool, website or application.  What is not always clear and made obvious to us are some of the ‘dark patterns’ that are used to keep us logged in, signed up and spending more time scrolling. 

What are Dark Patterns 

Dark patterns are tricks or elements of product design that have been created to make users do things they might not have done otherwise.  They are thoughtfully designed to be imperceivable and hard to detect.  It’s design that makes it easy to get into a situation but difficult to get out of. 

Ever had difficulty trying to unsubscribe from a newsletter?  Because the unsubscribe button is very hard to find.   It’s been designed that way, the unsubscribe button does feature but it’s been designed to blend in and not draw attention (think of it being inserted into a paragraph using the same font size, type and style, making it hard to find). 

Do you ever feel e-commerce sites create a sense of urgency for you to put that item in your basket and check out immediately?  Others on the site are looking at that item as well or you just missed out on an amazing deal, you better add it to your basket now, so you don’t miss out again! 

Have you ever struggled to de-activate an account?  The option to de-activate is hidden under layers and levels of menu options that are not intuitive to find.  Or you have to call someone or connect with a chatbot to finalise the deactivation.  This is an intentional bad user experience that makes it difficult, or almost impossible, without help to do something that is to the detriment of this business. 

Have you signed up for the extra insurance option on your travel booking without even knowing, or received an unforeseen charge from a service provider for a service you never bought?  These options were likely auto-selected and required you to opt-out to not be charged for extras that you never intended to purchase. 

Dark patterns, are they that bad? 

The best possible user experiences are ones where you don’t have to think, they’re intuitive, seamless and frictionless.  When user experiences become fraught with barriers, bottle necks and frustration, is when the design lacks human centricity.  The design and experience have failed to keep the wants and needs of its users (humans) front and centre and is no longer benefitting them. 

Dark patterns neglect the needs of users and ultimately step further away from being of value and utility to them.  While some of the tactics are subtle and a slight nuisance (I can’t unsubscribe), others are deceptive and misleading.  These tactics position brands and companies as being self-orientated versus putting the needs of their customers first which can erode trust and negatively impact brand perceptions.   Whilst dark patterns might achieve a short-term result (sales, followers, subscribers), you run the risk of long-term erosion of trust and reputational damage when dark patterns are found out.  Dark patterns are not centered around human wants and needs and those who make use of them will ultimately at some point alienate their audiences. 

Tags: , , Last modified: July 22, 2020
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