The devious designers trying to trick you

Unhappy user

Lego magician - digital design digest

Good designers aim to meet their users’ needs. But there is a whole other breed of designers who are trying to trick their users into something they don’t want to do. Find out about the evil magicians using dark patterns on you.

How technology hijacks people’s minds — from a magician and Google’s design ethicist — Tristan Harris

Tristan Harris says his work aims to “defend a billion people’s minds from getting hijacked”. In this excellent article, the former Google designer and magician explores how what he learned as a magician informed him about psychology, which in turn taught him how to be a good designer.

Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.

And this is exactly what product designers do to your mind. They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.

Microsoft accused of Windows 10 upgrade ‘nasty trick’ — BBC News

What do you expect to happen when you click the cross at the top-right of a dialogue box in Windows? Most people’s expectation is for the message to go away, and for nothing else to happen.

But last week Microsoft decided to make it do something different. They made it install an entirely new operating system.

Microsoft feel a necessity to get as many people as possible upgraded to Windows 10 for security reasons. But some users may have legitimate reasons to hold off from the upgrade. By breaking users’ expectations, Microsoft may in turn have broken users’ trust as well.

When websites won’t take no for an answer — The New York Times

Unfortunately, examples of such devious design are abundant, as this New York Times article shows. Several big companies are singled out for using tricky user interfaces, known as dark patterns.

But this nuanced article reminds us that such techniques can be used for good as well as evil.

Persuasive design is a longstanding practice, not just in marketing but in health care and philanthropy. Countries that nudge their citizens to become organ donors — by requiring them to opt out if they don’t want to donate their body parts — have a higher rate of participation than the United States, where people can choose to sign up for organ donation when they obtain driver’s licenses or ID cards.

The article ends with an interesting example that highlights how our choice of words in microcopy can have a big effect on how people feel using it:

When I’m on the desktop computer at the office and finish ordering books on for an article I’m working on, for instance, I can never find a simple log-out button. Instead, I scroll down a column marked “Hello, Natasha — Your Account” and then click on an option that reads: “Not Natasha? Sign Out.” But the notion that in order to sign off, I have to deny that I am me always gives me pause.

Dark Patterns

For more examples of UX bad practice, check out Dark Patterns, which has been documenting the worst examples of evil design for the past few years.

Have you ever been the victim of a dark pattern? Let us know in the comments.


  1. Great article, thanks Duncan.

    Dark pattern? Some shade of grey at least every day!

    I take advantage of Virgin Rail free 15 minutes wifi as I travel to work. Every day I have to uncheck the ‘opt into our marketing email’ as I access their network. Sooner or later I’ll miss this, start getting pushed junk mail and have to go through the process of unsubscribing. These little irritations devalue something that actually should give me a nice feeling about the brand.

  2. Thanks for the comment Neil.

    The ‘opt in to our marketing’ trick is a sneaky one.

    When I am asked a question like that in a face-to-face or over-the-phone situation, I often find myself agreeing to opt in because I think it will be easier to opt out later rather than deal with the awkwardness of refusing in person.

  3. The auto-checked “opt in” box is illegal, given that Virgin Rail is in the EU. The whole point of the opt-in law is that a user must deliberately choose to receive marketing information to receive it.

    I have been known to refuse to purchase products over the phone due to people trying to “sell” me marketing.

    I have a smartphone, and it’s far less usable for me than the PDA I used for most of the last decade. The lack of keyboard is especially uncomfortable, as is the difficulty in finding a case that fits it and keeps the phone usable. My old PDA could be used instead of a laptop for most practical purposes. The smartphone, despite costing a lot more, isn’t. I’d go back to the PDA, but it’s simply not secure enough for today’s internet. As it stands, I’ve reluctantly had to supplement the smartphone with a netbook.

    Smartphones are now about 1/3 of the price of netbooks and 1/5 of the price of laptops (here, even brand-new smartphones without ties to contracts start at below £100, and an entry-level brand-new smartphone with a typical contract is £1-£2 a month above the cost of internet line rental – let alone the price paid to the broadband provider and the seller of the computer to which it would be attached). A microbusiness would see big benefits in terms of start-up cost reduction from being able to use a smartphone instead of a laptop, assuming they didn’t already possess an appropriate laptop. And for a low-income person, there is little contest between the price of connectivity using a mobile device and that of a desktop or laptop.

    Unfortunately, some smartphones can’t use *any* documents in a sensible format. This seems to get worse on either very small screens (entry-level smartphones assume they’ll be used for image-based actions and the internet) or very large screens (tablets assume they’ll be used like standard laptops even where the programming and form factor makes that notion silly). A smartphone, like the PDA that preceded it, is its own form factor and needs individual respect.

    Worse, there is no format that all smartphones can read (let alone well). My smartphone is lucky; it’s one of the few among smartphones that can read all the Microsoft Office-format, PDFs (including editing the form-editable ones – a boon for job applications) and all the LibreOffice-format ones. There’s a format war elsewhere, and I’ve seen smartphones that can’t read any of these (for any category of document). About the only thing all smartphones can reliably read is .jpg (which is, of course, a graphics file)! And since lots of people are bad at taking readable .jpg files, and some smartphones are rubbish at taking photos (like mine) these have the exact same “format lockout” issues as written documents.

    Also, some phones can only write on online forms and proprietary “notes” formats. The notes function on my phone is right next to the program that reads office-type documents (and, apart from those form-fillable PDFs, are the only non-image documents my phone can create).

    It’s even compounding employability problems – bosses in the image-based older generation of managers are preferring just-out-of-university people over those a decade older because the former, unlike the latter, are also image-based rather than word-based. And then the managers complain that the “younger generation” can’t type very well – but still don’t look to the skipped generation that needed to type well to cope well with desktops.

    My local library has a strict 1-hour-per-day rule, and only people who have been on the dole for over a year and get lucky with their “employment support” provider can access any other sort of public computer (one of the three in town allows its users unlimited job-related computer access, including scanner/printer facilities, but the other two are too small to allow access outside of short appointments). My local library also has only one scanner, which is a huge problem because some applications require scans of items like certificates or ID items. (People with smartphones possessing decent cameras can, and generally do, get round this by using their cameras instead). Note that my area is very lucky (it has usably strong Wi-Fi and people who ask if you’ve downloaded security software before using it for the first time!), because most others around it have had to severely cut back library facilities – a lot of people in some nearby cities are not in walking distance of a public computer.

    My phone has about 8 areas that can meaningfully be pressed, which nobody seems to take into account when they design forms. As such, using it on the internet is often about fighting with a badly-designed on-screen keyboard in portrait mode (landscape mode obscures most of the screen). Worse, the keyboard has an AutoGuess function on it, whose woes range from the familiar “fat fingers” to putting in guessed words three times when you didn’t even want the first one – how it routinely gets “sportswear sportswear sportswear go” from “sports car” remains a mystery. (And no, I’ve never typed “sportswear” into this phone). You can probably guess how well the AutoGuess copes with someone who tries typing tweets in three languages…

    I would dispute the notion that document and image “manipulation” have swapped places; rather, phones are image- rather than word-orientated and there’s increasingly less emphasis on manipulation, or anything requiring thought (it’s now on quick consumption and any form of creation possible in a few seconds). It’s easier to please consumers than creators, and although creators shell out more money apiece, consumer currency is more plentiful. I think it may even be shaping how people perceive the world, as I’m seeing many people far more prone to believing surface illusions and even absurd assumptions in their lives than before, and getting impatient with people who think before believing (or, more often, disbelieving) initial impressions.

    My smartphone doesn’t have a bookmarking system for anything except websites, and that’s after checking its manual. It does have a Windows-style file storage system, but you have to hunt for the correct tools to use it, and the photo software is especially bad for hiding its default saving location deep within Settings. I can see why most people don’t bother. (Phone manufacturers all have notes facilities, but people don’t use them as they’re word-based and a camera is often more convenient).

    There simply isn’t any point in asking my smartphone to print anything, since it doesn’t have the capability of talking to a printer. More expensive devices can do it… …but so could my cheap little PDA 10 years ago. It really feels like phones have gone backwards over time – less useful, less usable and less considered in design.

    Manuals and training materials for smartphones are apt to be flimsy, even for the most expensive products. And like early cars, there’s little standardisation between them. Even Apple products tend to differ from each other more than successive Windows products – and those generate mini-rebellions every time they’re changed. I don’t see that resolving itself any time soon; there simply isn’t the will anywhere to do it.

    Information literacy has been poor throughout the age of the computer, but little has been done about it in education beyond a few sticking plasters. I suspect the government has learned that an ignorant population is easy to manipulate.

    Smartphones could be a whole lot smarter. But few people are interested in making them more suitable. And that is why the smartphones of today are less suitable for the world of 2016 than the PDA I have fond memories of owning in 2006.

  4. (And I’m not sure the comments section was attached to the article I was reading, which I thought was about how people were using their smartphones. Please move if need be…)

  5. Thanks for the comment and the insight Alianora. It’s very interesting to learn that you found your PDA more useful ten years ago than the smartphones of today.

    Your comment cuts across both this article and my other recent article about smartphone usage. So I will leave the comment here. Many thanks.

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