You Don't Really Have Much of a Defense Against Manipulative Designs Online


Yazin Akkawi


May 26, 2019

Have you ever tried to delete your Amazon account?

If you ever wanted to, you'd quickly realize that it's a borderline impossible task. Amazon makes it extremely easy for you to create an account, but forces you to search its labyrinth--the deepest, darkest corners of the website--to close it.

This is no accident. In fact, it's actually a persuasive web design tactic often referred to as the "roach motel"--it's easy to get in but hard to get out. And Amazon isn't alone in using clever design to manipulate you unfairly.

There's actually another name for these manipulative "nudges," design tactics that make things intentionally easy or difficult or even trick you to opting into something or to buy something. They're called dark patterns. These tricks--crafted with a strong understanding of human psychology--are the digital equivalent of corporate land mines, and they do not have your interests in mind.

Clever and Manipulative Tactics That Exploit Your Psychology

Remember a few years ago when LinkedIn constantly asked you to "expand your professional network" by inviting your entire contacts list? Well, in 2015, LinkedIn reportedly lost a $13 million lawsuit for the dishonest design after duping you into providing your friends' emails and then spamming them with invitations to create an account on the platform.

See a closeup of LinkedIn's offending dark pattern from 2015 above. You are not made aware that LinkedIn sends emails on your behalf to your contacts until you click "Learn More." The use of color and composition also discourages users from reading the explanation text and overlooking the "Skip" option.

These tactics are incredibly effective at influencing your behavior, but the worst part is that they do it without you even noticing. You're completely blind to the fact that the design is manipulating you.

How to Know When You're Being Manipulated Unfairly

Being able to spot dark patterns is the key to avoiding them. And obviously, the more you encounter them, the more likely you are to recognize them.

Ultimately, the best defense to dark patterns is the awareness of them. Luckily, awareness around Dark Patterns has grown over the years, and as a result, there are some great resources to learn more about common tactics. This video is one of my favorites:

Dark Patterns Work Well. Too Well.

The truth is awareness can only do so much.

I am arguably informed on Dark Pattern tactics much more than the average person. As a user interface designer myself, investigating users' psychology and experience online is part of my day-to-day job.

And yet, every now and then I still accidentally or unknowingly subscribe to an email list, buying insurance I didn't want or clicking on an ad that I thought was a button. Awareness can only do so much, and the designers behind these tactics are getting more sophisticated with time.

And get this: new research from the University of Hamburg suggests that dark patterns and nudges might still work as well in influencing your decision even when you know you're being persuaded to do something.

What if you're aware that you're being persuaded or influenced? What if the offender were to tell you that you were being tricked while you were being tricked? It wouldn't even matter; you're still susceptible to influence, according to the research.

What to Do When You Encounter Dark Patterns

Any time you're faced with a choice online, any choice--from making a purchase, to paying bills, to deciding whether to continue watching on Netflix and Youtube--digital mindfulness and a clear intention is one way to maintain your agency. Like in most aspects of life, giving pause and conscious thought to make purposeful decisions and actions creates better outcomes.

Any time a brand designs a website or user interface, it creates choice architecture whether it wants to or not. Even if the person or team behind the design is does not attempt to persuade you in some way, you are inevitably influenced by the manner in which the information is presented.

So next time you're shopping online, take a deep breath and take a moment to think about your intention online. What do you want? What are you here for? Why are you here?

When you know where you are going, you'll be able to see distractions and detours from your path for what they really are, and take control of your decisions online.

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