NSF funds research into “dark patterns” of user experience design

The National Science Foundation has awarded a research grant to Colin Gray, assistant professor of computer graphics technology, to study the ethical implications of user experience design.

Colin GrayThe specific focus of Gray’s research will be “dark patterns,” the name given to user experience (UX) design practices in which the designer uses 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 the 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.

Gray will study both professional and student UX designers working in different settings on varied problems. The first phase of the research involves documenting ethically-centered design methods, tools, and approaches alongside designs that exemplify dark patterns.

“Phase one is about collecting information and gathering a large set of real-world examples of dark patterns,” which Gray noted occur at varying levels of potential impact to the user. “We hope to document UX design processes which resulted in dark patterns in their products.”

In phase two, Gray plans to do 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 will also survey end users to collect stories in which people felt manipulated by ethically dubious designs.

“We hope to find out what people have seen or experienced that we didn’t discover during phase one’s artifact analysis,” Gray said. “That should help us determine what additional research would be needed to inspire ethically-aware UX design practice.”

Additional information:

Dark Patterns, Pragmatist Ethics, and User Experience (National Science Foundation)

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