What are deceptive design patterns and how can you spot them?

Deceptive design patterns are tricks websites and apps use to trick you into doing things you couldn’t otherwise, like buying things, signing up for services, or changing your settings. Another phrase used to describe deceptive design patterns is dark patterns*, which was originally invented in 2010 by user experience specialist Harry Brignall, drawing attention to the practice and creating momentum around denouncing it. Brignall regularly tweets some of the worst examples of deceptive designs online and praise honest users.

Deceptive design patterns come in the form of tricky color combinations, frustrating mazes, devious designs, and confusing language. Websites use these techniques to influence your behavior in a direction that benefits them more than it benefits you. Here are some examples of deceptive or manipulative designs you might come across.

Confused design and language

You won’t find deceptive designs on every website, but we’ve all been through confusing situations like:

  • A “No Thanks” button that is pale gray, but the “Sign Me Up” button is an attractive bright blue.
  • A box which is pre-checked, which does not allow you to know if you register or not if you uncheck it.
  • A graphic that has an X-out box as part of the design rather than being functional. When you click on the X, you are taken to a web page.
  • A site that is full of buttons, you are almost forced to click on one of them.

They can also appear in text taking the form of:

  • Double negatives like Do not uncheck this box if you wish to continue to receive emails from us.
  • Explanations buried in the general conditions of sale in small print.
  • Obstacles to closing an account, like listing the reasons you shouldn’t instead of just respecting your wishes.
  • Word choices that make it unclear what you choose.

Sales pressure

Visiting an ecommerce site means that you are going to see yourself selling items, which everyone expects. However, there is a fine line between straightforward product recommendations and gooey sales techniques. Deceptive design patterns abound on shopping sites to trick you into buying or signing up. Tactics which may include:

Basket sneaking: Just like kids try to slip cookies into a grocery cart, some sites also slip items into your cart. It could be a guarantee or protection policy that is easy to miss during payment.

False Customers: Some sites try to boost sales by create fake customers to give the impression that people are actively shopping there. Personally, I am deeply embarrassed to buy what looked like a sleek, flowing duster jacket that Tara from Nashville received and gave five stars a week ago. The jacket had also been relentlessly promoted to me on social media, and I eventually gave in to receive an ill-fitting poncho that wasn’t flowing, jacket, or stylish in any way.

Confirm shame: This is when a site tries to make you feel guilty or to shame you by registering. When you decline, it shows you messages like: You must be part of the “I will pay more” club Where No thanks, I already know everything there is to know.

Software installation obstacle course

During a software installation process, you sometimes have to click on a series of windows that do nothing in terms of installing the software. They make you feel like you’re making progress, but they’re actually designed to have you install additional “toolbars” or try other software, but they’re really disguised ads. The prompts are confusing which makes bonus software essential, but in general these design patterns make people add – and even buy – services they don’t want. Once installed, they appear to be part of the system and are difficult to remove.

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Forced continuity

Some subscription services offer a limited trial basis, which can be great for trying something new. But when they require you to provide your credit card information to start the trial, their goal is to automatically get you paid when the trial ends. It’s a deceptive design pattern called forced continuity. A better customer experience would be to call you back and invite you to register after the trial period ends.

Subscribe … forever

The “roach motel” is another registration tactic so nicknamed because it allows you to register there and makes it almost impossible to leave. If you’ve ever tried downgrading from a premium level account or found it took a lot of effort to close or cancel an account because options were buried or you needed to chat, check and verify one more times, you have clearly visited a roach motel.

Most people expect clicking a box to activate them in a service or subscription. Some sites use this box as an opt-out option, assuming that a person should be automatically enrolled. This tip is annoying, but especially benign when it comes to an email newsletter; you can usually unsubscribe from newsletters fairly quickly.

But membership tactics have also been used for the election campaign at the cost of millions of dollars in the bank accounts of people who cannot afford it.

A Princeton Research Project looked at thousands of emails sent by the political campaigns of the two major parties and found that “manipulative tactics are the norm, not the exception”. It is reasonable to ask donors to make regular donations; so the default is not. For example, during the 2020 U.S. election cycle, the The Trump campaign deployed deceptive design patterns pre-ticked boxes to get recurring donations from many unsuspecting supporters.

Are deceptive design patterns illegal?

If manipulative and deceptive conceptions are so bad, why do we keep seeing them? The short answer is that they often work. Website and app designers who use these tips knowingly capitalize on the fact that people tend to browse web pages, click on attractive colors, and not read the fine print. They focus on their bottom line, not yours.

But, there is hope. Designers learn and share more about spotting and combating misleading design. State governments are also beginning to enact laws to protect consumers. California recently expanded California consumer privacy law to combat the use of deceptive practices when obtaining consent from individuals for the collection and processing of data.

The newly approved regulations prohibit so-called “dark grounds” that delay or obscure the process of opting out of selling personal information. Specifically, it prohibits companies from overburdening consumers with confusing language or unnecessary steps such as forcing them to click multiple screens or listen to reasons why they shouldn’t opt ​​out. [Source: California Attorney General]

More political work to tackle deception in design takes place at the American federal level, with the Federal Trade Commission signaling that this is a priority for the agency.

Ultimately, the use of manipulation in web design erodes consumer confidence in the internet ecosystem and is clearly bad for people and the web. And it must go. Mozilla supports the federal legislation that was introduced aimed to prohibit such practices.

Firefox brings more clarity

Often the line between messages from a website or from the browser is blurred. The Firefox team designs experiences that are clear in their messages and respect your time and attention. In our last release in June, the user interface has been updated so that there is no confusion when Firefox “talks to you” compared to the site you are on. Likewise, our notifications and messages make it clear that you have a choice to engage with them, and that using the features should be a thoughtful decision you make, not something that escapes you. Our products are designed to meet your needs and help you enjoy everything the web has to offer without getting in the way.

* A note on the words
You may notice that we use “deceptive design patterns” rather than “dark patterns” throughout this article. While the latter has been in common use and has been for years, the phrase also reinforces the idea that being “dark” is “bad,” which is directly related to white supremacy. In accordance with our anti-racist commitments, we are move away from the use of exclusionary language, including metaphorical language related to white supremacy. Instead, we choose more factual terminology than other companies do as well.



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Billie M. Secrist

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