Dark Patterns: Tilting at Windmills

by on September 20, 2013

Harry Brignull’s “Dark Pattern Library” pops up from time to time on various news feeds (today on Business Insider, for their mutual SEO benefit).

We hired Harry when I was at Hotels.com to do some customer research work in 2009. I recall we got along OK. The fact that he later included us in his Library was somewhat surprising, but I suppose not altogether shocking. We were at the time showing headline prices exclusive of taxes and fees (scroll down for the shame).

But not only do I have skin in his game, as it were, I also have an issue with the overall idea of the “dark pattern” he has become the curator of.

There are some things in life that are hard to argue against. The war against drugs, copyright and Mother Teresa come to mind. Merely stating that you might hold an opposing view instantly sets you up for a huge fight in which most people will simply refuse to listen to you on principle. Brignull’s hobby horse is one of those topics, and the reason why nobody in the UX community has given any riposte. So for those still listening, I will say that I do not wish to endorse or enhance the practices Brignull describes, but merely to add a bit of context from a UX point of view. I would also like to point out that the energy he expends on collating these patterns would be much better spent on other things.

So what’s wrong with exposing evil?

Because it’s not there. Let me assure you that in my six years working in-house for commercial web operations, and in the previous seven at agencies, UX designers and product managers do not set out to mislead their customers. We receive briefs to come up with ideas to get people to buy more stuff by incorporating new features, making things more attractive, or easier to do. Never have I sat in a meeting where somebody has said a design isn’t sneaky enough, or that we need to find a way of tricking customers into doing something against their will. This is because in a competitive market, trickery is bad for business. If we knowingly chose to deceive, senior management would come down on us like a ton of bricks. It’s Business 101. Wilful deception just doesn’t happen.

So how come Brignull has a ton of things that look like just that?

There are two main reasons: the market and the technology (I shall leave aside cock-up, which is ever present in everything). Let’s take Harry’s Hotels.com example to illustrate the first.

In a market where the majority of competitor sites showed non-inclusive pricing, Hotels.com knew that to show inclusive pricing would hurt profits. They knew this because they’d run tests in several points of sale. If customers have a number of hotel booking sites to choose from, and start comparing the prices they initially see on them, the sites with the highest prices compare badly. That’s just business. In the event, a combination of cultural shift and regulatory pressure meant Hotels.com and all their rivals could move at once to inclusive pricing. They did so as soon as that was sensible in the eyes of the shareholders. Note that there are still some circumstances in which they cannot show the full price. For this, see below.

The more usual reason though is technical limitations. Let’s take another of his examples: making cancellation difficult. Given that online commerce is only about 10 years old, it’s not completely surprising that web businesses have to deal with systems and procedures behind the scenes that would make a grown man cry. Nerd historians may like to know that Hotels.com was still reliant on two AS400 VAX computers that formed a central part of their order processing systems in Dallas until as late as 2010. And it gets worse. Cancellations for things are by definition uncommon, and so don’t have good business cases to improve if the costs of doing so are high. The same sort of things are almost certainly true of other online businesses. The problem is that technical constraints on the back end can manifest themselves in very unpredictable ways on the front end. These then lead to hideous problems in the UX. In the specific case of cancellations, most business would jump at the chance of streamlining them because a cancellation process brings with it lots of other good business opportunities like up-sell, cross-sell and data gathering. But in the words of William Gibson “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”.

I will concede that some of Brignull’s patterns do seem genuinely misleading. But for that spare a thought for those trying to earn a crust. Were it not for some hard sell, a lot of the erstwhile free services (like Scribd.com) would simply no longer exit. Only the likes of Google can spin out a product on good will alone. At some point, the investors will want their pound of flesh, and, as the  cliché has it, if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.

I hope it’s not stooping too low into a patronising quagmire to say that I don’t expect a career consultant like Brignull to think very deeply about the commercial reality his clients often face.

But the thing that really grates when I look at the righteous indignation in Harry’s library is the fact that these examples are a distraction. He’s probably perfectly able to expose the conscious, calculated and utterly misguided usecrimes that people battle against all the time. Why not hold up those? Why not dissect the risible state of mobile usability? Why not rail against the use of jargon, needless features or unexpected interactions that are a constant part of using most desktop and mobile systems today? These designs aren’t meant to deceive – quite the opposite – yet they so often fail to be usable.

Exposing those things is a far better use of Harry’s time.

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