Yonette de Ru - Senior UX & Research, Digital of Things
In the first part of this series, I discussed what the three types of dark patterns are (click here if you have yet to read part 1). As the first post in this series was fittingly released on Star Wars day, I used the Star Wars storyline as a reference which will continue throughout the remainder of the series.
So sit back, relax and enjoy reading about the next four dark forces, paired with real-life examples AND suggestions on how to overcome them!
1. Price comparison prevention
Have you ever found yourself in a scenario where it’s hard to get a price comparison or the details upfront? If the answer is “yes”, then join the club! Personally, I believe that this is one dark force that isn’t going away - it can still be seen taking over the web. Fear not! If we can get the word out and highlight this dark force among creators, we can create better experiences for customers.
In Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, a Jedi, named Qui-Gon Jinn had to make an emergency landing on a planet called Tatooine due to a part that broke on their spaceship.
Here, Qui-Gon meets a scrap-dealer named Watto, who has the spaceship part he needs. However the currency that Qui-Gon uses, ‘Credits’, has no value on Tatooine. Furthermore, Watto's shop is the only one in the region that can offer him the service and products he needs, so Qui-Gon is hard-pressed to find another way to pay for the parts.
In this scenario, Qui-Gon can’t compare what the value of this part would be in his own currency and can’t compare it with other shops in the market, which prevents him comparing prices and products with one another - just like many customers here on Earth find themselves unable to do! This is one dark force that we need to rid the galaxy of - stat!
The same thing happened to me in a similar scenario, as the website did not offer the transparency needed during the new customer sign up process. When I was using the 'Grammarly' tool to help sense check my written articles, I had a look at their premium offers section, as their offering to help improve my sentence structure appealed to me, however when I got to the premium offers page I found that the prices were not shown up front! I could compare the packages in which I could upgrade, however without a price point how could I possibly make an informed decision as to which package to sign up for! Is the price not one of the biggest deciding factors when signing up for something?
I eventually found the price, however it took lots of scrolling and searching and was only found at the very bottom of the page, or I had to click on one of the packages in order to see the relevant price point.
In addition to the price point maze I had to navigate through, when I eventually did locate the prices, I faced another challenge (which I will call the ‘let's guess the font size game’), where the most pertinent key information and deciding factors were only to be found in the smallest font possible!
All of the above mentioned examples have an influence on the user experience and the deciding factors for someone to make (or not make) a purchase. By purposely preventing a price comparison, it makes it seem like the company is deliberately hiding something or purposefully making the user journey as hard as possible, and why would any company want to do that?
Don't be a cunning junk-dealer
Be transparent and share the key deciding factors with your users upfront. Usually, people heavily rely on the first piece of information they see. This is known as 'Anchoring Bias' 1 and can greatly influence the rest of the customer journey and can make or break an experience.
Hence when Watto told Qui-Gon that his 'Credits' didn’t work as a valid form of currency on their planet, he took Watto’s word for it without question as there was no other way. However, as in my ‘Grammarly’ example, many users would most likely drop-off if you don't conform to their expectations.
It’s important to understand what your users' expectations are and adapt the 'Anchoring Bias' method in context with their journey. In my case with 'Grammarly' if they had shown the prices upfront and had the 'monthly' and 'annually' text in a readable font size, maybe then the biases would be positive and they could be perceived as being transparent and trustworthy.
2. Hidden costs
Our second dark force that creeps up in the shadows is known as ‘hidden costs’.
By now you know that Qui-Gon's 'credits' were not accepted, but do you know how he was able to fix his ship? With the help of Watto's helper, Anakin Skywalker, he was able to strike a deal to win the part. Anakin suggested that Qui-Gon participate in a race against Watto- and if Anakin wins Watto will give the spaceship part for free but if they lost, Qui-Gon must give his ship to Watto.
However, Watto is a cunning man and would never let a deal slip through his fingers! Behind Qui-Gon and Anakin's back, Watto planned to rig the race by damaging Anakin’s vehicle to ensure that Watto would win. This sly way of doing business can be seen in our world too, and can be used as a reference when encountering these types of hidden costs/agendas. However, as most end users realise, by this time it is too late to make any changes - the deal is done. In Qui-Gon’s case, Anakin was victorious and got the parts needed to fix his new friends' spaceship, and due to a clever bet by Qui-Gon, young Anakin's freedom as well. However, not all are so lucky.
For example, these hidden costs/agendas can be found in subscription scenarios where users overlook the sign-up or cancellation fees in the terms and conditions. These users might find themselves with additional charges that they weren’t prepared for, which doesn’t make them particularly happy customers. The worst ‘hidden costs' are the ones that play hide and seek within the user journey.
This is exactly what happened to a friend of mine with her Adobe Stock subscription which she wanted to cancel, however she was confused about the cancellation fees as she couldn’t find the clause when she initially signed up. I had a look at the packages on the Adobe Stock website, and skimmed over the subscription bullet points. So far so good. However, there was one bullet point which mentioned a risk free cancellation within the first month. This raised a red flag, as this type of wording usually indicates some risk (usually fees) later on, when a user would want to cancel the subscription.
Just like Qui-Gon and Aniken trusted Watto and expected an honourable outcome, I expected an easy way to do business with Adobe Stock. In my experience with subscription services, the key aspects are found upfront, such as various cancellation fees the users need to be aware of, and other costs and consequences within a subscription.
How to avoid playing hide and seek
Empathy and user experience go hand in hand and creators tend to underestimate just how much emotions can influence a user's behaviour in the decision making process. Which is why it’s important to map out a full user journey that addresses the different levels of mental states to ensure you've catered for and are aware of any Empathy Gaps2.
Let’s take the example of the cancellation fee from Adobe Stock and think about it in the form of two different mental states. One mental state is a positive one where the user cancels with ease and doesn’t mind any associated costs, and the other mental state is negative, where users are in complete shock. The subsequent emotions to follow will influence their ability to make an informed decision and will also create a negative brand perception.
By closing the empathy gap and anticipating your users emotions designers can create better experiences for all mental states and steer clear of any possible negative experiences.
3 & 4. Forced Continuity and Roach Model
These two dark forces can turn you to the dark side in an instant with the methods that lurk within.
The dark side is another term used in the Star Wars universe, and means to turn to the dark side of the force and let your anger, fear and hate take over. With Anakin Skywalker, he turned to the dark side when he lost his mother and was afraid of losing his secret wife Padme. When his mother died, hate overpowered him and coupled with the fear of losing Padme he was easily manipulated to use the dark side of the force - as they are more powerful in the Jedi’s eyes.
In the end, Anakin couldn’t use the dark side to save anyone's life and was trapped. In the beginning, the dark side was tempting and was easy to access, but Anakin could never leave and ultimately gave up who he was. He was later known as the more popular character Darth Vader, this name given to him by his new master the Sith Lord.
In a real life example, I found myself nearly turning towards my own dark side when panic & fear struck me. I thought I signed up for one food box subscription from Hello Chef, in order to try out the service. 'Hello Chef' is a company in Dubai that delivers pre-packed food bundles based on recipes you've selected which helps you reduce food wastage, provides organic food and ultimately makes cooking easy. However I got roped into a 6-8 week subscription of food boxes instead! What’s worse was that I noticed that I signed up for this subscription in the second week when I received a notification that my additional recipes have been pre-selected and my box will be delivered within the week.
The food boxes are a great initiative but they didn’t inform me that I was signing up for a subscription based service which would auto renew for the weeks to come.
Imagine how I felt when I received this message and then had to quickly figure out how to opt-out of this forced subscription service as I would be out of the country when the food was to be delivered! This is such a dark way to get users to make use of your services by forcing them into subscriptions which they don’t require or are unaware of.
Don’t lose business or customers to the dark side
When users are asked to do something, their first instinct is to perceive it as a threat, after which they would break it down into segments in order to make an informed decision. Now, just imagine how high the perceived threat can be when users are forced into something instead of asking them.
To avoid this threat and emotional fear, it’s easier to start with micro-commitments3 and gradually build up the consumer-customer relationship from there. Our brains love questions and we also love the concept of self-discovery4, combine these two and you’ll quickly gain an understanding of why many people flock to online quizzes to figure out which Disney character they are.
The key takeaway is that developers and designers need to find a way to engage with their customers by asking small questions to give users the power to make quick and informed decisions. Combine this with some questions on self-discovery and you have the winning recipe to reduce churn and retain more customers.
It is important to take note of these dark forces as many users have taken legal action against websites that manipulate them into situations which ultimately force their hand in making decisions and privacy concerns.
In the US, Senators introduced an act called the “Deceptive Experiences To Online Users Reduction (DETOUR)5 Act”, which states that it is illegal for a large organisation with a 100 million or more subscriber to create or modify a design that could manipulate, obscure or deceive the users' decision making when obtaining consent for services or user data.
It will only be a matter of time before subsequent acts such as these are rolled out across the web and these dark patterns can be seen as elements to take legal action against, just look at all the legislation against Facebook for privacy acts and LinkedIn that settled a $13 million dollar case6 against the ‘Friend Spam’ dark pattern (which we will discuss in the 3rd part of this series).
As social networks and other online products' key goals are to grow their user base, they also need to take responsibility and accountability for bad design, especially when the bad design is intentional (such as using these dark forces). Hopefully the lawsuits that arise against these forces will serve as a warning and will be an eye opener for businesses that users are standing up for their rights. It is more important now than ever to stay in tune with what is happening in the world because you don't want to be outsmarted by your users!
Make sure you stay tuned for part 3 - the last article of this dark UX series!