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article imageQ&A: Dark Design — the good, the bad and the very attractive Special

By Tim Sandle     Nov 10, 2019 in Technology
Dark pattern design is becoming more common, influencing the user experience promoted by many companies. Bhav Chohan explains the good and bad points about this approach, plus some notorious examples of UX.
“Dark pattern design” is the practice of using software design to influence the behavior of users. The practice is becoming so large that the U.S. Senate is planning to pass a bill to control its use, which can lead to addiction in some extreme cases.
According to Bhav Chohan, VP and Global Head of Design at intive, it is wrong to lump all UX design into the same bracket. Many companies are using User Experience (UX) design to encourage beneficial behaviors such as healthy app usage, nudging users to choose eco-friendly solutions or reduce distracted driving and so on.
To discover more, Digital Journal spoke with Bhav Chohan.
Digital Journal: What is dark pattern design?
Bhav Chohan: Dark pattern design harnesses the power of user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) techniques with the purpose of being intentionally coercive. Through the combination of strategic visual design and persuasive micro-copy, users can be steered to make unintentional purchases, give consent to invasive privacy settings, or simply spend longer using the application than intended.
Once the reserve of magicians and hustlers, phrases such as ‘misdirection’ and ‘bait and switch’ are now commonly discussed on design forums as developers debate where customer-centric design stops and business-orientated tactics begins. These techniques are often so well disguised that users have no clue that their decisions have already been preordained by the business. This is why it’s so important to raise awareness of the most common tricks being employed.
DJ: Why is the US Senate passing a bill to control use?
Chohan: The U.S senate is looking to tighten the reins on big web platform holders with “over 100 million active users,” like Facebook, Google and Amazon. The act, which was dubbed “The Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction Act,” would make it illegal for companies to “design, modify, or manipulate a user interface with the purpose or substantial effect of obscuring, subverting, or impairing user autonomy, decision making, or choice to obtain consent or user data.”
The platforms offered by big tech have become essential parts of our lives as consumers, making the prospect of boycotting them highly unlikely for the majority of us. That’s where government regulation comes in: The power that big tech wields could spiral unless it is kept under a close eye, and we need to make sure that these companies serve our best interests.
DJ: Is there any evidence that dark pattern design can cause addiction?
Chohan: Causing addiction by dark pattern design is certainly a bold statement. Dark pattern design is more likely to fuel addiction: Social media platforms often deploy tools to encourage their users to endlessly scroll and stay active in the app/on the website, with even simple features such as an endless newsfeed (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) or the suggested video path of YouTube contributing to this.
And it’s not just on social media that we see addictive dark pattern design. Many video games build easy-to-spend models that hook players without them realizing it. There is even now a name for players that spend so much money on video game app extras - “whales” - that actually provide most of the revenue of these gaming companies.
DJ: Why do we find certain patterns so appealing?
Chohan: When we get a notification from social media or go up a level on a certain game, we get a hit of dopamine in a similar way that we would after taking drugs. This fuels the appeal of dark pattern design, and it also plays a role in habit formation and addiction. That dopamine hit we get when we check social media keeps us going back and checking for another like or comment.
The design of platforms that use dark pattern design is often straightforward and user-friendly, but also very visually appealing with bright colors, drawing users’ attention to certain actions. The color red is often used to indicate unread notifications, giving users a sense of urgency to check it and respond.
DJ: Are there examples of firms using UX to coerce positive behaviours?
Chohan: Of course, we shouldn’t lump all UX design into the same bracket. Many companies are doing quite the opposite and harnessing the power of UX to encourage healthy behaviors or conscious consumerism, nudging users to choose eco-friendly solutions or reduce distracted driving to mention a few.
DJ: What is it that makes UX ‘Good’ or ‘Bad’?
Chohan: The intent of the company or developer behind it. If the intent is to encourage negative behavior or mislead the user into agreeing to something unknowingly then it is pretty clear that the design is meant to benefit the company and not the end-user. However, more conscious UX can actually deter users from using certain tools for too long and encourage responsible use.
Contrary to spurring on the release of dopamine, examples of responsible UX might cause the release of the “happy” neurotransmitter, serotonin. If an app has made the user feel calm, content, or like they are progressing towards a positive goal, serotonin is released, as it accompanies moments filled with intention and mindfulness. For example, meditation apps like Headspace would fall into this bracket.
DJ: What can tech companies and users do to achieve a better balance in the future?"
Chohan: Tech companies can increasingly adopt features that help their users get their technology use under control where it needs to. For example, Apple and Instagram, have already implemented “screen time” features within their software. Being straightforward and providing users with clear tools to monitor and control their usage goes a long way to improve balance.
However, as every aspect of our lives become digitized and we look to a future of smart cities and hyper-connected IoT fuelled lives, an abundance of new challenges presents itself to designers. It falls on design teams to facilitate greater dialogue with policy makers and challenge others on unethical practices that may influence negatively or cause risk or harm. As the quantified self and proliferation of data driven fingerprints of our lives, protecting trust and baking in principles that afford individual and societal gains and inclusivity is essential.
For design teams this also means building in diverse perspectives through balanced worldly teams that intrinsically bring alternative experiences and viewpoints which can build robustness to areas of ethical, social or legal influence.
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