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Defense Against Harmful Patterns

It's one of the most pernicious design choices out there—and Vidhika Bansal wants to fight it. 

Words by Tony Ho Tran, Visuals by Thumy Phan

Editor's Note: Since this article was published, we've learned that the phrase "dark patterns" is outdated. We've updated our style guide, in adherence to our anti-racist language policy, to exclude this categorization.

While no future People Nerds pieces will include the term "dark patterns," we were unable to find a suitable substitution within existing context of this article. We hope the field will continue to work towards more inclusive, recognized terminology. Feel free to email us with any suggestions or feedback at: [email protected] 

You’re browsing a website one day when a pop up appears. A little annoying but no big deal—just have to close the window.

You move your mouse over to the top right corner to close it out, but you can’t seem to find the “X.” In fact, there doesn’t appear to be any way to get rid of the pop up. To make matters worse, it’s shaming you into providing your email address. You just officially went from annoyed to full-on aggravated. You don’t care about whatever it is the pop up is trying to sell you; you just want to get back to what you were doing. Now you're starting to resent the brand behind it.

That’s because what you just encountered is a dark pattern.

And while you might not have experienced this specific example, you likely have come across a dark pattern before.

Like the digital services that make it intentionally difficult for you to unsubscribe. Or the “free trial” you signed up for that asks for your credit card information—knowing full well you’re going to forget to cancel.

“They’re intentional,” says Vidhika Bansal, UX Group Manager at Intuit. “[Dark patterns] take advantage of the consumer to help the business.”

Throughout her life, Vidhika has been fascinated by behavioral and cognitive psychology. It’s an interest she has cultivated into a career championing the user in every facet of the design process—even if it means ruffling some feathers.

“I’m often the voice that not everyone wants to hear because it means your conversions might go down,” she says.

She’s taken plenty of opportunities outside of the office to advocate for users as well, most recently speaking about dark patterns and deceptive design in August 2020 as part of the faculty for the Texas Bar CLE’s Advanced Consumer and Commercial Law course.

Dark patterns are pernicious and yet painfully common on the web. That’s why we sat down with Vidhika recently to discuss her work combating dark patterns, and how teams can best avoid them.

I could be sitting on a team working with great people, and yet we had designs that had dark patterns in them.

Vidhika Bansal

dscout: What got you interested in dark patterns?

As a consumer, as someone who uses the internet, I used to come across all of these different patterns online — at the time I doubt I even knew what they were called — that just felt like they were taking advantage of me. They didn't feel fair. Add to that having my permanent UX hat on, and it was all the more frustrating to witness. So I think what really sparked my interest in dark patterns is just seeing them out in the wild.

I've always been a big believer in the idea that knowing about how people behave — and how the human brain works — can really help us design better experiences. In behavioral economics, we talk about nudges, and how we can use what we know about people to help them make better decisions — whether it's helping them save money, eat healthier, or something else that’s in their best interest.

But this felt like something that I really love—psychology and behavioral design—was being taken and leveraged for all the wrong reasons. So usually you'd want to use behavioral design to improve people's lives and workflows. And instead, here we had a tactic that actually exploited people instead of empowering them, made their lives harder, tried to trick them.

And then while working on design teams, I often saw dark patterns crop up. I started to feel kind of powerless against them. It was something that businesses often did, but there didn't really seem to be much accountability.

It didn't feel like what we wanted to be as a design community. As someone working in the digital space, I felt almost a responsibility of sorts to dig deeper. I was curious about dark patterns, and I wanted to understand: why do these still exist?

Why did you feel powerless against them? Was it seeing them happen in the orgs you worked with?

Oh, absolutely. I think that was one of the most frustrating parts—I could be sitting on a team working with great people, and yet we had designs that had dark patterns in them.

The fact that the people requesting or putting these designs together could be your colleagues and your friends can make you feel pretty powerless. You know that they're good people, and so there's a little bit of a disconnect there where it's like, "Why are good people doing these arguably bad things?"

Why do you think that happens? I feel like a lot of people go into research and design with good intentions. They want to champion users. Why do they end up making a decision like incorporating dark patterns?

I think one of the biggest reasons comes down to incentives. A lot of times, especially in tech, speed to market is how we measure success. There’s this notion that faster is always better, so we sometimes make quick decisions without considering their negative implications.

There tends to be a really, really big emphasis on metrics. Dark patterns especially thrive in environments that are aggressively metrics-driven. Metrics can be valuable of course, but they’re proxies at the end of the day. A lot of times we’re incentivized to meet a certain sales or engagement or revenue goal by the end of a quarter. And dark patterns do a really good job of increasing numbers in the short run.

They trick people. It's like clickbait. If you have a clickbait title, a lot of people are going to click on it. Your numbers will go up. But in the long run, people will no longer trust you.

Unfortunately at the beginning it tends to work. And so dark patterns end up being used to optimize flows and boost conversions even if at the expense of the overall user experience. If companies were more deliberate about measuring success, in a way that prioritizes long-term loyalty and satisfaction over short-term gains, I don’t think we’d see them nearly as much.

Also, a lot of times, it's not the individual designer who is choosing to put in a dark pattern. More often than not, they're asked to do that. There can be a lot of pressure from external parties — people in other departments who don’t champion users as part of their jobs, or even leadership.

Designers, researchers, and really any of us in the UX and technology world have the power to make a difference, and to speak up—whether we come across dark patterns as consumers, or whether we see them within our own organizations. But again, it can be tricky when the person you have to speak up against is a colleague, friend, or even your boss.

And of course, there’s the issue of just lack of awareness. Many people don’t even know what dark patterns are and it can be hard to identify them if you don’t know what you’re looking for. So far there aren’t checks and balances for this kind of thing, and dark patterns aren’t really being regulated that heavily. So there's almost this diffusion of responsibility, which makes it less likely that anyone will be held accountable for the negative consequences of what’s created.

Dark patterns aren’t mistakes or oversights. They’re carefully crafted to prioritize a business’s interests over a consumer’s.

Vidhika Bansal

I’m assuming the first step towards accountability involves recognizing that something is a dark pattern...which sounds like something easier said than done.

You’re right, it’s tricky. Dark patterns are definitely a little bit fuzzy, in the sense that how do you distinguish between something that's just been poorly designed from something that's a dark pattern?

One of the biggest differentiators is intent. Something that's just sloppy could be considered bad design or an anti-pattern, but intention is what takes it to dark pattern territory. Dark patterns aren’t mistakes or oversights. They’re carefully crafted to prioritize a business’s interests over a consumer’s. They deliberately obscure information or put up roadblocks so it’s harder for people to do what’s in their own best interest. Dark patterns aren’t due to negligence — they’re trying to achieve a specific business outcome.

There’s sometimes confusion between what’s persuasive design and what’s a dark pattern. Because arguably, designers are in the business of persuading people to take actions. Persuasive design on its own is not bad, but as soon as you’re preventing people from making informed choices, or intentionally misleading them, that’s dark pattern territory.

Ultimately dark patterns take advantage of the way our brains work. No one is immune to dark patterns. The only qualification you need in order to fall prey to a dark pattern is to be human. I think we sometimes forget that all of us are vulnerable. There's a very specific mindset people have about vulnerability, when in actuality, anytime we're distracted we're vulnerable. Any time financial hardship hits—COVID, for instance, has affected everyone—you're suddenly more vulnerable.

There's several different frameworks that exist for classifying dark patterns, and those frameworks can be really helpful for checking against something that you're designing. Personally I like to think of dark patterns as generally taking advantage of one of three things: our attention, our bent towards minimal effort, or the fact that we’re social creatures.

As humans, we have very limited attention. We cannot physically pay attention to everything in our environment all the time. If you're relying on someone not paying attention in order to get them to do something, that probably falls into dark pattern territory.

We also tend to take the path of least resistance. If you're making something intentionally difficult for people to do, then it is very likely a dark pattern. A common example is when companies make it almost impossible to find out how to cancel or to unsubscribe. That's not just a mistake, because they're really good at putting their "buy now" buttons front and center. So why is the "cancel" button really hidden?

And then the other category that I look at is if they're taking advantage of social pressure. As humans, we really like to belong; we like to be liked. So something that's shaming you, or that's making you believe that lots of other people are doing this thing, but lying about it, is probably capitalizing on this desire. Again, saying lots of other people are doing something is fine; that's persuasive design. But as soon as you start fabricating information, you're being unethical.

Are there any exercises or tests we can rely on to help identify if something might be a dark pattern?

A good litmus test is what I like to call the “IRL vs. URL” test. Basically, try to imagine: if this behavior happened in real life, would it still be appropriate? Would it still be ethical? Would it still be legal? A lot of times, in the real world, there are certain things that we would instantly know are wrong.

Let’s say I went to the grocery store and wanted to buy cookies. So I get the cookies, and head to the cashier. But as the cashier's ringing me up, I notice that there's a carton of milk. And I’m like, "Wait a minute, I don't remember putting that in my cart." And the cashier says, "Oh, well, you know, we just have some associates that walk around to assess what you have in your cart, and they just throw some things in there that they think that you'll like. You were getting cookies, we assumed you might want milk."

Now, that sounds a bit crazy. If I went to a grocery store and that actually happened, I would be angry. Especially if I wasn’t paying close attention while the cashier was ringing me up — maybe I was looking after a child, or I was looking at my phone. I just went home, and that’s when I noticed milk in my bags and on my bill. I'd be like, "I did not pick this up, I did not buy this. I should have paid more attention." But that’s still the store taking advantage of me not paying attention, which is not okay.

Meanwhile, that happens all the time online. It’s a common dark pattern. You might be shopping for something, and then in tiny text at the bottom, it'll preselect something else that complements whatever you're buying. Next thing you know, your bill has shot up. A lot of times, people are doing these purchases when they're on their cell phones or on the go, and they may not notice until it's too late.

I think it can be really helpful to think through the real life version of a situation and map it back to questions like: "Are we trying to take advantage? Are we making an assumption about how someone will be acting, maybe against their best interest, in order for this to work?" If the answer is yes, it might be worth reconsidering.

We have so much privilege being in this field […] Preventing dark patterns in our designs is a great way for us to use that privilege for good.

Vidhika Bansal

What advice do you have to people who might recognize a dark pattern, want to push back against the design, but might be too nervous to do so because it’s from colleagues or stakeholders?

The number one argument I have is, if we got into this field to make products and services that are going to help people, dark patterns are completely contrary to that, they are diametrically opposed to that mission. It doesn’t align with our values, it doesn’t align with why we do what we do.

In line with that is ethics. It's wrong, and we all want to feel like we can sleep at night when we put things out into the world. Ethical arguments are my first go-to, because that should be enough.

But, a lot of times there's pressure. People might fully know that it's a little bit unethical, but are willing to let that slide because they want to beat a quarterly goal, or some sort of metric.

In those cases, one of the things I really advocate for is naming them, or actually calling something a dark pattern. Don’t just say, "Oh, you should remove this," but say, "Hey, you know what? This looks like a dark pattern. We shouldn't be using that.”

It also really helps to remind people that dark patterns are not actually good for business. They're kind of an illusion. They’re penny-wise, pound-foolish. Again, in the short run, they work really well because you're fooling users, and manipulating or misleading them into doing something. But people might hold it against you, and that hurts brand equity. It hurts loyalty in the long run. There could also be legal consequences, especially down the road (fingers crossed). So from a business standpoint, dark patterns are a mirage.

We have so much privilege being in this field, getting to help build things that others use. Preventing dark patterns in our designs is a great way for us to use that privilege for good.

All right. Two more questions. The first one is, what's a question you wished people asked you more?

One question that I really wish people asked each other more, especially those they work closely with, is "what is something that you feel people misunderstand about you?"

That's a question that I've always found really fierce. It unlocks something in the person that you're talking to, where you get immediate insight into what they feel people perceive about them, how they perceive themselves, and what that delta is. Knowing the gap can help you bridge it.

When I start working with a new team, that's a question I ask, because I feel like it reveals so much that will help down the road. Every single time I've gotten an answer, it's helped me understand how I can work better with that person. And it maybe even puts into perspective something that — at first — I would have otherwise taken personally or misjudged. So that's a question I really love.

And then outside of that, I wish people asked me what my favorite ice cream flavor was more often, because that is something I could talk about for half an hour.

So, I said I have two more questions left, but it turns out I have three more questions left, and the last two are: What do people misunderstand about you? And what's your favorite ice cream flavor?

Oh, gosh. I set myself up for this one, didn't I?

I think people can sometimes misunderstand my intentions when I point out problems that could crop up with a plan or initiative. I’m a classic overthinker and I often simulate worst case scenarios and pre-mortem things in my head. It’s how my brain works; I just want to proactively avoid negative consequences.

It very much comes in handy in UX, but without context or by those who don’t know me well, it could be misinterpreted as naysaying or nitpicking. There’s always stuff that will go wrong that we can’t anticipate, so I like to try and skip the mistakes we actually can anticipate. My fifth grade teacher always used to tell us to “be lazy, do it right the first time” and it’s almost become an unofficial motto.

As for my favorite ice cream flavor, I generally love anything chocolate or coffee. And it has to have...dynamic contrast, I think they call it? Coffee Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz and New York Super Fudge Chunk by Ben & Jerry's are both amazing. And then there’s Jeni's ice cream, which is my latest obsession—the Salted Peanut Butter with Chocolate Flecks flavor is to die for.

Tony Ho Tran is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. His articles have appeared in Huff Post, Business Insider, Growthlab, and wherever else fine writing is published.

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