Buyer beware, dark patterns are everywhere

From Intuit to Amazon, dark patterns have emerged as an inescapable part of our our digital lives. A dark pattern, as Fast Company succinctly put it, is “a user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things.” And it’s different to bad UI. It’s the inviting blue button on TurboTax that leads you to a paid tax return form, next to a garish orange button that leads you to the free filing option. It’s the greyed-out, less expensive option on Amazon below the default selected, more expensive Prime option. In short, the default is the annoying thing.

Given the ubiquitous presence of dark patterns, consumers seem to be waking up and wondering “how did we get here?” Taking that question one step further, are there any redeeming qualities of dark patterns? And if not, what should we do about their rampant use?

How we got here

Dark patterns are largely the product of the capitalistic pursuit of money and the commodification of people’s attention. And we can probably thank the ruling doctrine of the day, the Lean Startup method, for this newfound efficiency of capturing money and attention. Lean Startup methodology asks a fundamental question of product engineers: when we make changes to a product, how do we know we’ve made it better? Lean Startup devised a means of fast learning about product efficacy through rapid testing. And Intuit, the owner of TurboTax, was the poster child featured in the book. Fast-forward a decade later after Eric Ries has transformed the speed of learning at Intuit, and they have deployed their newfound abilities to guide consumers to costly decisions: TurboTax ripped off troops with a bait-and-switch dark pattern promising a “Military Discount” and milked the unemployed with a misdirection dark pattern, obscuring the free filing option with obtuse language, convoluted website pathways, and wiping the free page from search results.

 Journalist Justin Elliott reported extensively with ProPublica on the nature of TurboTax dark patterns that guided users away from free tax filings.
Journalist Justin Elliott reported extensively with ProPublica on the nature of TurboTax dark patterns that guided users away from free tax filings.

Is it all that bad?

Intuit’s CEO fought back against the media bashing to say that their dark patterns were in the “best interest of taxpayers”. Many dark pattern architects might argue the same thing. Take the example of newsletters. Almost every online vendor has made newsletter subscription an “opt out” option at checkout, with “subscribe to our newsletter” checked as the default. Such vendors might posit that they want to deliver useful deals and information that you just don’t know you want or need yet. You can all but imagine the disembodied sales bot saying, “it’s not a trick, it’s a legitimate sales tactic in the best interest of the consumer.”

There are a few rare instances where dark patterns are motivated by consumer service priorities. For example, some cloud providers will provide a default option of using the regional data center with the most capacity, rather than the data center you most recently used. Most customers choose the default, and receive more reliable service as a result.

But for the most part, dark patterns are the evil twins of nudges. A nudge is “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”. Think putting fruit at eye-level and candy on the bottom shelf. Or how the Austrian government makes organ donor the default status for citizens, resulting in over 90% donor status vs the US’s ~15%. The UK government loved the concept so much that they created a “Nudge Unit”, more formally known as the Behavioral Insights Team, to influence public policy.

Are dark patterns just nefarious nudges? Not exactly. The big difference between nudging and dark patterns is in the definition. Dark patterns, by definition, “trick consumers” to do something they wouldn’t want to do. It’s not simply that you make one option more top of mind; it’s making the desired option appear to be the only option, to the benefit of a private company, over the consumer body.

What’s a consumer to do?

Regulation is one possible solution to dark patterns. The Federal Trade Commission and local Consumer Protection Offices already protect against a number of aggressive and fraudulent sales tactics. If you’re in Europe, GDPR may be helping consumers out too. However, with today’s gridlock in Congress, we may be on our own as consumers for a time. But we do have our own power of the purse. So vote with your dollars! If you notice a company using dark patterns, don’t reward them with your patronage. Companies are using dark patterns because they work. If we show them that they don’t, then they won’t. Preference vendors who don’t use dark patterns.

Lastly, in researching this piece, ProPublica, who provided the deep dive on Intuits abuses of consumers, hit me with their own dark pattern.

Who am I? A real question as the physical/digital divide gets blurrier

Who am I? Many a wise man, from Beanie Man to Hugh Jackman in Les Misérables, have asked this question over the years. And with each individual’s growing digital presence, the question becomes more challenging to answer. Not only is a different piece of ourselves presented at work, school, and home. Now different aspects of the self are also presented via the different digital platforms we engage with. We are being shaped by what we consumer, by our digital socialization, and by how we interlink our physical and digital realities.

You are what you consume

Similar to the truism “You are what you eat”, the modern equivalent “you are what you consumer virtually” rings true in this digital age. My inbox has provided a retrospective of my digital self of late. Rather like a string of Facebook Memories, GDPR has surfaced all sorts of websites with Privacy Policy updates that I’d long forgotten, that are vestiges of my digital self from 10-15 years ago. It’s fascinating to see what I was interested in as a teen and reflect upon how those interactions have shaped me today — but equally frightening how many people have my e-mail address!

Projection, personification, and socialization

It is easy to project perceptions and feelings onto increasingly human-like and sophisticated AI, particularly in the realm of voice assistants. With increasing openness to the Alexas and Siris of the world comes a new level of openness to such AI shaping our behavior and thinking. Kids provide clear illustrations of this. Children today may not believe in the tooth fairy, but they believe in Siri and Alexa. Not only do children consider these voice assistants friends; they also see them as a source of encouragement. Think about it – if you ask Siri a question, she answers honestly and admits when she can’t answer. She never gets frustrated, no matter how many questions you ask. If you struggle to express yourself fully, Alexa offers non-judgemental, friendly reactions. Inc. Uncensored cited a story of a child learning English gaining the courage to be vocal through interactive dialogue with Google Assistant.

Connecting the digital and the physical

With our augmented brain, a.k.a. our phones, continuing to connect the dots with our physical selves, we will increasingly see ourselves and the physical items around us as having digital identities as much as physical ones. Apple has already released new features of its ARKit to developers, and look how one creator has already connected digital information to physical items: he’s connected his account data to loyalty cards and passes. This pairing of physical and digital removes not just the logistical separation of information, but also the mental separation.

 Easier to use loyalty cards with AR
Easier to use loyalty cards with AR

There is much to be wary of — or at the very least, to be aware off — as the information age continues to transform not just our daily lives but our beings. I, for one, have found cyborgs in the Sci-Fi universe fascinating and hope to evolve into a hopefully good-natured one myself. This is a space I will be watching – so stay tuned!

 What a friendly-looking cyborg!
What a friendly-looking cyborg!