“Dark patterns” in user experience design manipulates consumers, says CGT research

Updated December 9, 2019

Summary of dark pattern strategies, identified through research by Colin Gray and colleagues in Purdue’s UX Pedagogy and Practice Lab

“On sale — today only! Only five left in stock,” proclaims an online advertisement. But when you click the ad banner and discover that the item usually sells for the same price and plenty are available, you’ve fallen prey to one of many shady tactics that sellers use to manipulate consumers. A Purdue Polytechnic professor is studying the ethical implications of these design tactics.

Colin Gray

Colin Gray, assistant professor of computer graphics technology, researches “dark patterns,” an ethical phenomenon in which user value is supplanted in favor of shareholder value during user experience (UX) design practices. In other words, dark patterns are what’s in play when designers use knowledge of human behavior and the desires of end users to intentionally manipulate them into actions not in their best interest.

“It’s clear in engineering literature that there is an ethical responsibility inherent in design,” Gray said. “When building a bridge, for example, engineers know they must make it strong enough not to fall down and hurt people. But when you’re not designing a physical thing, it’s a much murkier space. How far does ethical responsibility go when you’re designing a user experience which might have the capability of harm?”

Gray first learned about dark patterns during his doctoral work at Indiana University. “It resonated with me because I was already doing work on ethics in design. Businesses want to make profits, so they shape user experiences very carefully. It benefits the companies, but does it always benefit the user?”

People today often face dark patterns in the online world, Gray said. Websites use deceptive headlines or images as “clickbait” to keep you at their sites longer and entice you to buy products, download software, or sign up for services, memberships, or subscriptions you may not want. Social media platforms encourage you to “like,” “follow,” or invite more people so you’ll spend more time using their apps, exposing you to more of their embedded advertisements or supplemental product offerings.

“The idea of dark patterns is obvious once you come across it in everyday life,” Gray said. But rather than blaming the designers of manipulative ads or sites, consumers often blame themselves when they succumb to clickbait.

“We ran a survey study and then followed up with a number of interviews both in the United States and in China,” Gray told The Atlantic. “And we found very similar sorts of patterns in both cultural contexts, where manipulation is part of these users’ everyday life but they don’t feel like they can do a lot about it.”

Example of obstructive behavior limiting access to ad tracking settings on Apple iOS 6. In recent updates, this option has been moved to a more relevant location with straightforward wording.

To learn about how dark patterns emerge during the design process, Gray and his students have studied both professional and student UX designers working in different settings on varied types of work. The first phase of the research, which began in 2017, involved documenting ethically-centered design methods, tools, and approaches alongside designs that exemplify dark patterns, the outcomes of which are available to the public at darkpatterns.uxp2.com. Gray and colleagues in Purdue’s UX Pedagogy and Practice (UXP2) Lab gathered a large set of real-world examples of dark patterns that occurred at varying levels of potential impact to the user, documenting UX design processes that resulted in dark patterns in the designers’ products. They have also performed extended observations of designers in their places of work to document how UX practitioners and students perceive ethical issues, both during and after the design process.

“There are some ethical considerations built into current processes, but they aren’t specific enough to deal with issues raised by dark patterns,” said Gray. “They don’t consistently allow the designer to address differences between the needs of the end user and the needs of the business which is creating the tool.” There could be multiple additional stakeholders, he said.

Gray is now studying discussions on Reddit, a popular website featuring thousands of user-created discussion boards, that call out exploitative design including advertisements that play automatically, anti-homeless “hostile architecture,” and deceptions in retail spaces. “What we’re finding is really complex strands of ethical reasoning,” Gray said to The Atlantic. “But I don’t see that that sort of awareness is traveling down to the general public.” By studying how people recognize, respond to, and communicate with dark patterns, he hopes that the public will become more aware of the incessant coaxing they face in today’s online world.

“Dark patterns” has actually become an umbrella term, Gray said, covering a wide range of ethical issues raised by UX design practitioners and also a shared concern that they might become complicit in manipulative or unreasonable persuasive practices. Additional forms of ethics education should be incorporated in UX and human-computer interaction (HCI) curricula, he added.

The research project was funded by a March 2017 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). In August 2019, Gray and the research team in the UXP2 Lab received an NSF grant to continue the research, broadening its focus to study ethical responsibility in the design of technologies.

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