Don’t surrender to Dark Patterns.

Procastinators are told “don’t leave for tomorrow what you can do today”, or “if the task takes less than two minutes, then do it now”. Well, let’s break that last rule down, because very often with technology, the 2-minute task can be corrupted into a much longer or impossible task.

In our overly-connected society, we are used to get instant information of anything we need. Current technology allows people to allocate their time on what really is important to them (reading a book, liking pictures of food in Instagram, etc). Unpleasant tasks that we all need to do from time to time became less tedious. As an example, I can easily take my phone, open my online banking app and see the fee they took for a payment I made with my card two months ago in Vietnam:



Because Spanish is cool and trendy, you speak a little bit and you can pronounce perfectly the most important sentence, “Una cerveza, por favor”. Therefore,  you also noticed that no info is given other than the reassurance that a fee has been charged… How can a bank like Santander, with a market cap of 78 billion euros and almost 200.000 employees fail to show me the fee I paid for a transaction I made two months ago? The answer is called dark pattern…

As explained in this very good article on The Verge, a dark pattern is an element of software design whose purpose is to lead you to do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do. The article explains how they are used for you to opt-in on insurances you don’t want,  signing up for recurring bills, etc.

What I am explaining in this article goes beyond the mere lazy or bad design of a user interface. It is the case of having, on purpose, a broken feature in a piece of software, that would otherwise expose inconvenient information or lead to less profit for the company applying these techniques.

So, in the case of the payment fee, it is clear that they don’t want you to see it on your mobile phone. Why? Because they don’t want you to classify that task into the group of tasks you can do in less that two minutes. Checking how much a bank charges you as commission? No way! You cannot check that while on a train, or at a cafe, etc. So you leave it for when you arrive home. But when you are finally home, you have less energy to do the tasks that are not fun, or you might as well have forgotten completely.

Conclusion, that task wasn’t a 2-minute task, and in the best scenario it got delayed for the next day. The worst scenario is you forgetting completely so the bank does not need to explain why it took such an outrageous commission. By the way, this is the same bank that, until not long ago, allowed you to see only the last 6 months of movements in your account… I’m sorry what? Event my optician still has records of my eyesight from 14 years ago!. Yet another dark pattern…

Santander doesn’t even hide the fact that they use dark patterns. A very obvious one is the landing page after you have logged in (desktop), showing some promotions. In the bottom left corner I found my salvation “Check here if you don’t want to see this page again”… Well I gave up ticking the checkbox at the third attempt. Another issue with their code, right?. It looks like reading a boolean value from a check box is some sort of black magic.

Unfortunately not only banks use dark patterns, they are everywhere. Another unpleasant one was with the airline Iberia. Now they categorize as low cost flight what previously was a regular flight Berlin-Madrid (the flight price still the same though, so I’m not sure when the “low cost” comes into play…). So now you have to pay for extra luggage. If you book luggage in advance it costs cheaper than at the airport.  I realized after having bought the flight ticket, so I decided to modify my reservation to include luggage. 2-minutes task, right? Log in, search for reservation, add luggage, pay and go? After all, this company is flying airplanes, so an online transaction to add luggage to my reservation shouldn’t be a big deal. Well, Iberia had also decided that this is not longer a 2-minute task… So an error pops up. At this point the dark pattern (as always) is winning the arm wrestle. You have two options, pay more at the airport (so the dark pattern definitely wins), or call customer service. In the latter case, the 2-minutes task becomes 10-15 minutes task, possibly including Goos Fraba exercises.

I could mention several more dark patterns that I have noticed recently. I believe that the fact that you know about them makes you either upset or curious about the way that dark pattern is benefiting the company, in detriment of the customers. Nowadays all services companies claim to have the best usability, the most responsive mobile apps, etc. To me it seems that they work hard on usability until the company gets big enough, then they can throw dark patterns at you in ways that are almost an offense to the customers’ intelligence.

So the question is, how to battle them? The answer is you can’t. You can only control how you react on them. Do not take it personal and wonder why they don’t fix the simple check box in their website. They will not. I believe the best you can do is to make a pros and cons analysis of each situation. Is it worth to spend 10 to 15 minutes on the phone calling customer service or spend more money and get it fixed face to face?… Is it worth to get upset about how unusable a bank mobile app is?.  My strategy is to recognize a many as I can, learn what they do and how they are applied. Companies are greedy on their own interests and have found an excellent way to protect those interests: blaming technology malfunction.

So, what dark patterns have you found and how do you deal with them? Leave your comments!

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