As technology becomes increasingly complex, so do questions about ethical product development and UX design. Dark patterns, or anti-patterns, are an example of that: they are cases in which design manipulates consumers into performing certain actions (for example, clicking a link or paying for something). This is not just bad design–it is design that’s intended to exploit. Most anti-patterns have the end goal of getting users to spend more money, more time, or give up more of their data.
Anti-patterns are an issue for almost any company or organization using technology. In fact, they have become so pervasive that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently convened a group of experts in a workshop on the topic. The workshop sought to put industry parameters around what constitutes an anti-pattern, how they wrong consumers, and possible solutions (like regulation or self-regulation).
Kat Zhou was an expert on one of these panels, and we were delighted to have her expound on the topic with some of 500’s portfolio company founders.
What’s in a Name?
Today, the terms anti-pattern and dark pattern are synonymous. However, given their negative connotation, there’s an effort to move away from associating these patterns with the word “dark”, given historical precedents in Western society. “During the FTC event in early spring this year, the point was brought up that we might want to reconsider what we call these things,” Kat explained.
“If you want a real mouthful you can go with manipulative user experience design or deceptive user experience design. Anti-pattern is not the perfect name either. Actually there’s an existing terminology ‘anti-patterns’ in computer science that It might be confused with so at the moment I think they’re the industry still trying to find a proper name for this.”
To clearly define anti-patterns, Kat started with what’s probably the most widely-known characterization of consumer behavior research: the American grocery store. “Every single inch of this layout is planned, and every single product placement…you know why this type of cereal is next to that type of cereal,” Kat explained. “It is very intentional, the level of detail and thought and strategy that goes behind this whole experience…and essentially it legitimizes this kind of attitude of understanding users, getting to know them using a combination of methodologies like behavioral science and economics psychology to essentially persuade [them] to do things, to buy things, to spend time in your store, or a variety of other angles.”
Similarly, anti-patterns are very specific designs around a user’s experience on the web intended to manipulate them in a certain direction. Whether it’s making one button more prominent than another, hiding cost comparisons, an ad disguised as navigation or content, or some kind of misdirection, anti-patterns are intentionally inserted into the users experience to evoke a certain action or outcome.
For those who want to take a deeper dive into understanding different anti-patterns in play, UX designer Harry Brignull, a foremost expert on the topic, has catalogued the various types.
Why Are Anti-patterns Unjust?
“Anti-patterns play a part in the infringement of our rights.” Kat explained. “At best, they are a nuisance. At worst, they can hurt the most marginalized communities.”
Not only are anti-patterns disingenuous, misleading, and frustrating for the user, but they can violate user rights. They’ve been shown to disproportionately wrong marginalized communities and the less digitally literate, an issue Kat underscored in her talk. Ultimately, anti-patterns act against a user’s ability to choose. They actively undermine autonomy and choice.
“I want to talk about the underlying incentives of this whole idea of getting our users hooked and getting people to do things,” said Kat.
“It’s so prevalent. When you think about what drives a product team to do things like this, or what drives a design organization that encompasses that product team, or the overarching company; or what drives the Silicon Valley attitude and what motivates companies to employ these practices. When you think about what drives the overarching tech industry [and] what drives this large racial capitalist system in which we all exist (and this is a phrase that I’m borrowing from Cedric Robinson who’s an American political scientist who wrote a lot and extensively about the intersections between capitalist systems of extraction and exploitation and our constructs of race that we have in society), the theme that ties all of these together and acts as that primary driver is something that you can find in all of [the] headlines. It’s that word: Growth.”
An Empowered Approach to Designing Tech
While growth is still largely in the driver’s seat of the tech industry, Kat encourages her fellow product designers and managers to feel empowered in their ability to treat users with respect and integrity. Kat stressed the importance of ethical design decisions, as these small choices have the ability to influence millions of people.
For this reason, Kat emphasized the importance of acknowledging the privilege inherent to working in tech, where decisions have exponential impact and influence. And that with this privilege comes the responsibility to design as ethically as possible. She went on to point out that even by speaking up about what seem like small design nuances, we can be using our influence and power for good.
Kat wrapped up by pointing out that while anti-patterns may be new knowledge to many, policy is starting to care about this issue more and more so we all need to be paying attention. Founders should be actively addressing this issue and ensuring websites and tech products are not employing manipulative practices.
We might not change the paradigm for tech design today, but by making small changes and focusing on ethical design, we can make an impact.