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Definition

dark pattern

A dark pattern is an element of a manipulative interface designed to trick the user into taking actions that they might not have done freely.

Dark patterns are used in some web pages, popups and programs that include malware, freeware, shareware, freemium offerings and even fully paid software. A typical scenario is the inclusion of additional programs along with a program a user is installing – sometimes referred to as drive-by downloads or barnacles. During the installation,  the programs may be presented to the user as options in a more- or-less visible check box. Typically the additional programs are pre-selected for download. To make it even more likely that the user won’t successfully prevent their download, the developers may make the forms complicated to fill completely and have them set to reselect “optional” programs in the event of an error. In another scenario, the user selects between typical and advanced installations and the “typical” option includes unspecified third-party programs. Should the user continue through installation by simply clicking “next” in the series of windows, they end up with unwanted programs.

Dark patterns are often used even with paid purchases or subscriptions. An additional item may be added automatically by an e-tailer during a purchase, putting the onus on the buyer to see and remove the item from the cart. Subscriptions may be unintentionally selected where one-time purchases for goods, magazines or donations were intended in the same way. This practice is sometimes reinforced by policies like requiring post-delivered letters to unsubscribe.

Dark patterns are used almost as often by established companies as shady enterprises. Microsoft’s GWX (Get Windows 10) update app is a prime example. Microsoft offered Windows 10 freely to Windows 7 and Windows 8 users. As time went on, however, Microsoft was presumably not happy with user uptake and started using dark patterns in popups for the offer. Eventually, GWX presented a window with buttons for “upgrade now” and “upgrade later.” The X in the corner of the window, rather than simply closing it, initiated the upgrade. Similarly, Amazon’s website makes closing an account almost impossible and the company continues to send promotional emails after users have unsubscribed.

As one might expect there, is a negative reaction to dark patterns and other elements of manipulative interfaces. E-tailers and software designers and all those who use dark patterns stand the chance of losing a customer permanently over this effort to increase revenue. There is a growing movement among responsible and ethical UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) developers to stop the practice and to shame those who continue to use dark patterns.

This was last updated in June 2016

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