Dark Patterns in Web Design

darkpatterns.org defines dark patterns as designs “that are not mistakes but carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology”. In other words, the action intended by the user is masked under another design layer. This is illustrated below using use-cases from three different software applications.

1) Dark – MySQL download

With enterprise and community editions, MySQL is one of the most popular database software that is used across the world. It can be used for desktop applications as well as cloud applications. Consider a user who intends to download MySQL software from dev.mysql.com/downloads and clicks on a operating system-specific download link. This prompts a new page with focus on Login or Signup options. A new user might be driven to Signup in order to download the software. However, if the user scrolls down there is a ‘No thanks, just start my download’ link which prompts the download.

Hiding MySQL download link after login/signup options
Hiding MySQL download link after login/signup options

2) Darker – WhatsApp’s phone number sharing with Facebook

WhatsApp is a popular social network messaging application that boasts of over 600 million active users. When WhatsApp was acquired by Facebook in 2014 its co-founder Jan Koum promised that there will be no data sharing with Facebook. WhatsApp rolled end-to-end encryption for messages in April 2016. In late fall, the organization rolled out a privacy update that shares a user’s phone number with Facebook.

Image courtesy: EFF
Image courtesy: EFF
Image courtesy: EFF
Image courtesy: EFF

The screen that prompts an update to Terms and Privacy Policy highlights an option to Agree to the rollout. However, there is an option to read more about the key updates towards the end of the screen. Upon clicking that, an option to un-enroll from sharing the Whatsapp account information with Facebook is revealed. It is now common knowledge that most users do not read Terms and Conditions and just accept an application’s update. Facebook leverages on this and hides this action by default. Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has lead in spreading this awareness.

3) Windows 10 – Privacy settings

Windows 10 drew a lot of flak for its questionable default settings. Where does the flak originate from? Consider these: it can track your location (Location services), it sends Microsoft what you write (Getting to know you), inability to turn off automatic Windows updates among other settings. The Getting to know you feature drew severe criticism for sending data to the servers in the United States prompting a call in Russia to ban the use of Windows 10 in state agencies.

Please refer to the articles by LifeHacker and ArsTechnica to know the specific privacy concerns and implications of the dark design patterns.

Not a tech-only problem

Dark patterns in widespread services are not restricted only to software produced by technology organizations. Consider the following scenarios. Some of us read through the ingredients of a bottle of coca-cola, a cookie packet, a bread packet that are available in your local store or an hypermarket. How about that burger you buy with a hungry stomach in a local bakery or the soda you buy in the fast-food chains? None of these clearly show the implications of consuming delicious fatty foods. Research studies have consistently shown the risks of consuming high sugars. Very few stop to consider the implication of consuming such foods.

The root of some of the above dark patterns is the design of the software application (MySQL, Whatsapp or Windows 10) and the design of a package (bottle, packet) for the rest. In the case of food and beverages, a well-meaning central food and drugs administration authority can restrict the food on sale depending on the ingredients. Design, when done well, can provide useful functionality but has severe implications when ill-motivated.

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