Exploring Dark Patterns in User Experience at Web 2.0 Expo in NYC

Last week I attended Web 2.0 Expo in New York to give a talk about dark patterns in user experience. This talk was somewhat the sequel of a talk I gave at SxSW earlier this year about “behavior design,” or the ability for technology to influence us so we live healthier, better lives. Just as we can use the web to improve our lives, though, the same persuasive techniques can be used against us.

This talk came about in part because of the concerns about my SxSW talk: there’s a fine line between persuasion and manipulation, and it’s important to figure out where that lies. I was inspired to frame the talk in the way that I did because of Harry Brignull’s site that collects and categorizes “dark patterns,” or techniques that are carefully crafted to work against a customer’s interests.

To the user, though, it might be hard to tell the difference between a UX designer’s mistake and a dark pattern. Many dark patterns exist to fulfill specific business goals that may make sense within the company, but through a lack of opt-out feature, or poor defaults, the execution is botched such that it results in negative perceptions of the company.

Compounding things further, some companies may actively use dark patterns, because they’ve successfully made a case that they will increase profit. And that may be true: profits, after all, are easy to directly measure, far more than customer goodwill. Companies may also implement dark patterns passively, through incoherent business strategies, strategic issues, or internecine fighting between stakeholders. In my talk I listed a handful of ways that we can determine goodwill, like repeat transactions from the same customer, which might work towards solving this problem. I also listed some ways to avoid dark patterns from happening in your product.

If you’re interested in learning more, I’ve posted the talk’s slides to my website.