July 17, 2023

What are dark patterns ? Interview of Harry Brignull, the inventor of this concept

I did a thesis about Dark Patterns in 2020, this trend that has increased during the last decade and I had the honor of interviewing Harry Brignull, who invented this neologism in 2010.

A dark pattern is an element of a manipulative interface designed to trick the user into taking actions that they might not have done freely.

Dark patterns are often used even with paid purchases or subscriptions.

They’re created by designers, measured by managers and optimized by scientists.

Here is an example of Dark Pattern :

The refusal option appears as a shame for the user in order to make him guilty.

Could you present the History of the term “Dark Pattern”?

“A few years ago I came up with the term “Dark Patterns”, at first I don’t think it was a big deal. I wrote a talk for a conference and it needed a catchy name. At that time, it was becoming fashionable for designers to write about pattern libraries. I’d read Theresa Neil’s and Bill Scott’s work and I wanted to do something similar — I wanted to contribute to the industry by sharing my knowledge and that’s where the idea of dark patterns came from. I thought, maybe I can create a library of deceptive design practices. The more I looked, the more I found.

Could you present your background / your studies ?

“I originally studied Psychology, then I specialized in Human Computer Interaction and I did a PhD in Cognitive Science. I became a consultant in 2006, and a few years later I came up with the idea of Dark Patterns. It’s an idea that sits at the intersection between Psychology and Design.”

Today the link between design & psychology is more accurate, the society perceived it , what do you think ?

“Yes, I think behavioral science and the idea of behavioral “nudges” has spread the idea a great deal. I think everyone has stated to realize that if you want to get users do the things that benefit your business you need to understand human psychology. It’s becoming common for companies to hire psychologists and user researchers for this purpose.”

Are you working as a freelancer today ?

“I do a little freelancing from time to time. I provide expert witness services: when there are cases against companies using deceptive tricks, I might get called to provide an expert analysis.”

Could you give us some examples about Dark Patterns ?

“There are so many examples online, I’m not sure where to start.

An obvious one is “sneak to basket” — when something is put in your basket while you’re not looking or “roach model” — when you get into a situation quite easily but you find it difficult to get out. And I’m sure you’ve been caught out by “trick questions” : when you fill a form and get caught out by a question that’s asked in a deceptive manner.

People categorize Dark Patterns in different ways. I like the way Conti and Sobiesk (2010) categorized them. They use a number of overarching concepts, such as coercion, confusion, distraction, interruption and obfuscation.

New types appear all the time. I noticed a new trick just recently — in which conflation is used to confuse users when they are skim-reading a page. If you read the headings, you get one message. If you carefully read the page body, you get another totally different message.”

Dark Pattern is a process that can be prohibited in the USA with D.E.T.O.U.R act (Deceptive Experiences to Online Users Reduction) ?

“It’s very hard to write regulations that are fair and effective. D.E.T.O.U.R is not an act, it’s a bill — so it’s not a US law yet, it’s the initial idea. It’s good that people are trying to create new laws to regulate dark patterns. The D.E.T.O.U.R bill is interesting and contains some good ideas.”

DETOUR act is dedicated to platforms with more than 100 million users.

What do you think about the ranking ?

“100 million is a big number. I’m not sure it’s a great idea to only target companies that large. There are lots of smaller companies that should be regulated too.”

As a result, Dark Patterns is used by a lot of companies to manipulate users will and it’s quite difficult to regulate it.

Another form of illusion : the rise of Deepfakes (replace the face of the main person by another one on a picture or a video) which is going to be more dangerous than Dark Patterns.

To move forward :