Dark Patterns: Deception vs. Honesty in UI Design by Harry Brignull

In his article Dark Patterns: Deception vs. Honesty in UI Design, Harry Brignull, a user experience designer working in Brighton and London describes the concept of Dark Patterns in web site design. Dark Patterns are deceptive practices within the User Interface of a site that manipulate users into commitments they might not otherwise make. This is the web equivalent of “small print” on paper contracts or the deceptive practices of printed ads or commercials.

Brignull also introduces the organization darkpatterns.org that was established to educate users on these practices and to expose those organizations that employ them.

The principle examples of Dark Patterns Brignull describes are: placing extra ‘hidden costs’ at the very end of a transaction; Forced continuity- the practice of collecting billing information for what is purported to be a free transaction (free trial period, free sample) and then billing a client later without additional notice; and using confusing language or defaults to enroll clients for future advertizing.

The same human behavior patterns that ethical designers employ to improve interest and clarity of a website can be employed by unethical designers to deemphasize legally required notices that might deter users from completing a transaction. He points out that these deceptive practices can be demonstrated as effective in tests because by their very nature they cause users to finalize more transactions than they normally would. Their effectiveness can make management reluctant to eliminate the practices even if their initial employment was not deliberate, just bad design.

Brignull advocates the adoption of a longer term client retention strategy based on brand image, credibility, and trust. He further remarks that the backlash of bad PR and customer dissatisfaction will ultimately outweigh any short-term gains that may be acquired through the use of these Dark Patterns.