What are dark patterns? Online media expert explains

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(THE CONVERSATION) Dark patterns are design elements that willfully obscure, mislead, coerce and / or deceive website visitors into making unintended and possibly harmful choices.

Dark patterns can be found in many types of sites and are used by many types of organizations. They take the form of deceptively labeled buttons, hard-to-undo choices, and graphic elements like color and shading that direct users’ attention towards or away from certain options.


Dark patterns in subscriptions are a common example of this type of design choice, given the ubiquity of online subscriptions and free trials for all kinds of products and services. This type of dark pattern can make it difficult for a user to unsubscribe, or it can automatically convert a free trial to a paid subscription.

To demonstrate how common these design practices are and to illustrate the various damages they can cause, designer and public service technologist Stephanie Nguyen and I launched zine I, Obscura. The zine publishes case studies of different dark models and what can and should be done to protect users from these practices. I, Obscura was launched with the help of student authors Ryan Tan, Kaylee Doty, and Kally Zheng, and in collaboration with the Stanford University Digital Civil Society Lab and the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry.

Why dark patterns matter

The inability to unsubscribe from a service results in specific financial harm: it forces people to spend money they didn’t intend to spend. But dark patterns can cause other types of damage as well.

These can take the form of emotional manipulation, such as when a site places a countdown on an offer to speed up a customer’s decision-making, even if time does not affect the sale or use of the product or service. Or the harm could be loss of privacy, such as when an app forces users to turn off data collection in two different settings instead of making privacy settings easy to find.

An imbalance of power exists between users and organizations, which makes it almost impossible for individuals to always protect themselves from deceptive design practices. We created I, Obscura to help educate internet users about the possibilities.

Consumer protection is also important. The Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general have enforced consumer protection regulations against organizations that use deceptive design practices, especially those whose apps target children. It is important for policy makers to ban the use of dark models and to demand that organizations make interactions as transparent and straightforward as possible.

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This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: https://theconversation.com/what-are-dark-patterns-an-online-media-expert-explains-165362.


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