Dark Patterns

30 Apr 2013

Dark patterns have been around for a couple of years, but it seems like the concept is gaining steam lately. It’s normal for design (and copy) to try to modify behavior, but with more and more frequency, I feel like apps are trying to trick me rather than encourage me.

The example that prompted me to write about this was a trick question asked by Cobook, an app that was described by my friend Raul as a better Address Book.

Help us improve Cobook! Would you mind if we collect anonymous usage statistics?

What do you think happens if you answer yes? If you think it means anonymous usage statistics are not sent, you’re wrong, even though that’s exactly what it should mean.

I expect trick questions when it comes to this sort of thing. Whether it’s anonymous usage statistics or sharing my email address with advertising partners, I’m ready. “Don’t you not want us to avoid subscribing you to our list of people we won’t email?” Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty good at figuring out how to say no, which sometimes means saying yes. (Yes, I love logic puzzles. No, really. Yes.)

In this case, I answered yes, because I didn’t want to send anonymous usage statistics. That’s not how my answer was interpreted. Answering yes is treated like saying you don’t mind.

It’s not a big deal, but feeling tricked erodes my trust in the app. It’s the sinking feeling that Cobook deliberately segmented the people who answer this question that bothers me.

Segmented? Yes, I believe this question prompts a different reaction depending upon whether the person answering read carefully.

  1. If you don’t mind, you happily answer yes, thinking that means you’re agreeing to help. You don’t read as carefully, because you don’t expect to be tricked.
  2. If you do mind, you probably read more carefully, and you’re going to answer yes.

By reversing the meaning of yes and no, Cobook cleverly solicits the same answer from both groups of people, which happens to be the answer they want.

Simple mistake? Maybe. Like they say:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

In this particular case, perhaps that’s true, but the more often this sort of thing happens, the less I’m likely to think it’s anything but a deliberate attempt to mislead me.

Perhaps it’s time for a little more honesty and trust on the Web?

If you’d like to see more examples of dark patterns, pay close attention to the way iPhone apps ask for reviews Clever? Yes. Evil? Maybe.