Analysis: Online companies are increasingly using deceptive design methods to influence what and where we click

The concept of human centred design is one of the fundamental aims of design organisations such as IDEO. They seek to collaboratively problem-solve systemic challenges in such areas as education, food, mobility, and ageing with the person at the centre of the solution. Design is about trusting in the process and using quantifiable and qualitative research methods to create stories, products and experiences that really matter to people. 

When a designer sets on a project, the first question they must answer is what is the problem we are trying to solve. Know as a wicked problem, the designer must first embed themselves in the domain area to allow them to design a solution that is fit for purpose. This human-centred approach to design put the person at the centre of the solution and serves the need identified for that individual or group of individual.

But a new type of design methodology has begun to emerge which is not focused on helping the user by solving a problem they may face. Instead, it seeks to influence their behaviour using "dark patterns". I first witnessed this when Dan Ariely, who founded Irrational Labs, spoke at an invite-only talk at Google in Dublin. Irrational Labs describe themselves a "designers and behavioural scientists who are deeply passionate about designing our systems and our environment to change behaviour (for good)" – and it's that for good section that sets them apart

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How dark patterns trick you online

However, not all who use the tools identified by Ariely and his team share their ethical point of view. The term dark patterns was coined by Harry Brignull a London-based user experience researcher and designer who brought the problem to the public eye by creating Darkpatterns.org, a wall of shame for companies and websites which specially build deceptive user interfaces.

This can be as simple as an "Agree" button coloured red to encourage a user to opt in to a design that makes you select the advert rather than the photo or video. The more complex "Roach Motel" model makes it effortless for a user to sign up for a premium subscription, but the details on cancelling and unsubscribing are hidden tens of pages deep with no visible signs to help the user. If you've tried to leave Audible, you’ll know what I mean.

While such dark patterns are now becoming more complex, some online companies are using the examples of behavioural economic triggers used by Irrational Labs and set out in their book Hacking Human Nature for Good. They describe identifying and removing the barriers that are preventing people from doing the key behaviour you want them to undertake.

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For example, you're contemplating an online purchase and are hesitating about it. Companies employ behavioural nudges to push the user to complete these purchases. A familiar one is where you're told that there are only two items left in stock when this in fact is not the case. This is a dark pattern seeking to exploit the user's risk aversion and fear of not being able to make the purchase at a later date to push them to proceed with the transaction.

These patterns exploit our emotions by offering positive reinforcement, social proof, false premium pricing structures and programmed time constraints. You see them on popular hotel booking sites which provide information on how many other people have booked that hotel today, the one time offer for the price if you booked that day and a warning that there are only two rooms left. All of these are false dark patterns constructed to control your behaviour.

Increasingly, these patterns are based on information gathered from location-based social networking, which has led to significant amounts of data from users being accessible across boundaries in public and private spaces. The availability of this information provides advertisers with a unique opportunity to produce and deliver personalised dark patterns for individual users based on the available information.

Such one-to-one engagement within the design sphere is nothing new, but had been traditionally the preserve of the digital printing press. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes how large databases feed variable data documents, thus allowing companies to create direct one-to-one targeted interactions with their customer for the purpose of billing or promotional practices.

The capture, development and maintenance of such databases and the use of personal information have become an essential weapon in the marketing arsenal of the major retailers. In an analogue form, they offer card-based loyalty schemes used as an incentive for users to offer up personal information. Now, we give our digital identity to use web-services for free . The transactional nature of the free service has tipped the balance between our personalised data and the ownership of our digital identity.

An analysis of dark patterns in e-commerce sites was recently conducted by an independent team of researchers at Princeton University. They found that a large number of the 11,0000 sites they surveyed employ dark pattern design techniques, which they define as "user interface design choices that benefit an online service by coercing, steering, or deceiving users into making unintended and potentially harmful decisions."  The best method of avoiding these techniques is by being aware of their existence and the emotions they seek to exploit as well as taking care of your personal data, especially with the transactional economics behind free services.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ