What are Dark Patterns and Why Should You Care?

James Grieco
James Grieco
Jul 25, 2023
min read
What are Dark Patterns and Why Should You Care?

You have probably heard the term "dark patterns" before in internet or data privacy discourse. Here we're getting into what they are, where you might see them, and how it affects the data rights that MineOS is trying to empower for people around the world.

What are dark patterns?

Dark patterns are design strategies used in websites and apps that manipulate users into performing actions they might not intend or want. This is typically done by exploiting cognitive biases and misleading users through deceptive interfaces or misleading language. Examples of dark patterns include interfaces that default to more expensive options, hidden costs that are revealed only at the final stage of a transaction, and difficult processes for cancelling subscriptions or services. These tactics often lead to user frustration and can erode trust in the product or service, yet they persist because they can also drive short-term gains, such as increased sales or sign-ups.

Where do you see dark patterns?

Dark patterns appear in many online environments and digital products. One common example is in e-commerce sites, where the interface may use high-pressure sales techniques like "only 2 items left in stock!" to create a false sense of urgency. Similarly, airlines and hotel booking sites may default to more expensive options or add on extra fees (like insurance or baggage fees) that are not clearly disclosed until the final checkout page. In the realm of social media, dark patterns might include difficult account deletion processes that discourage users from leaving the platform. Subscription-based services may employ dark patterns through complicated cancellation procedures, keeping users subscribed longer than they intended. Also, during the software installation process, some companies might pre-select the option to install additional, often unnecessary, software, taking advantage of the fact that many users tend to click through these processes without paying close attention.

Why are dark patterns bad?

Well, beyond the obvious negative consequences they have for consumers, dark patterns can never be good as they are implicitly anti-consumer. They prioritize only the interests of the business over those of the customer, often leading to deceptive or manipulative experiences. These practices may cause users to make decisions they wouldn't have otherwise made if provided with clear and transparent information. For instance, customers might end up buying more expensive items, agreeing to recurring charges, or disclosing more personal information than they intended. This can erode trust in the brand, leaving users feeling tricked or exploited. While some businesses may benefit from short-term gains, dark patterns can lead to long-term customer dissatisfaction and damage the company's reputation. This conflict between user interests and business objectives, combined with the deceitful nature of dark patterns, makes them fundamentally anti-consumer.

How do dark patterns affect data privacy?

Dark patterns can have a significant detrimental impact on data privacy and user consent by subtly coercing users into sharing more personal information than they might voluntarily choose to. A common strategy involves making privacy settings intentionally complex and obscure, capitalizing on the fact that users often stick with default options, potentially leading to excessive data collection. Another technique is the 'Cookie Consent Bypass', which involves embedding critical privacy-related details in long, convoluted terms of service documents or utilizing pre-checked boxes to gain consent for cookies. These methods make it challenging for users to fully comprehend and dictate how their data is used. Such tactics effectively veil the true extent of data collection and sharing activities, violating the crucial principle of informed consent that forms a central pillar of data privacy legislation such as the GDPR.

What are governments doing to stop dark patterns?

The GDPR in the EU has made significant strides in outlawing dark patterns, mandating that companies should use clear and plain language when it comes to user consent, thereby promoting transparency and limiting the use of misleading interfaces. The GDPR also requires explicit consent for data collection, making tactics that obfuscate this process illegal. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also taking a firm stance against dark patterns. They have the power to penalize companies for deceptive practices, including those involving dark patterns that mislead consumers about their privacy choices, and as of late 2022, have made the fight against dark patterns a top priority for their agency.

Regardless of government regulation, companies need to understand that transparency and respect for user privacy are not just legal necessities, but in nature essential to building and maintaining trust with customers. By valuing transparency in their privacy and data practices, businesses can create a more honest, user-centered digital environment. This approach not only mitigates compliance risks but also contributes to better customer relationships and brand reputation, leading to sustainable long-term success.