Dr Deepthi Ratnayake explores the impact of dark patterns on web applications.

With the advent of personal computing, the need for easy and efficient use of personal computers expanded  human-computer interaction (HCI) to incorporate multiple disciplines: computer science, cognitive science and human factors engineering. This article explores the magnitude of deception in modern day user applications and the current work and proposals for turning them into a delightful experience.

Mind the moral code gap

Designers (and AI) use their knowledge of human behaviour and the desires of end users to improve the user experience. Implementing the right user experience (UX) design / HCI personalised to individual needs can offer a phenomenal experience to users, simply by providing beautified and pleasant interfaces to advanced support and improving human life spheres like health care, education, commerce and self-expression.

Companies spend huge sums to promote the buying or selling of their product or service. Targeted marketing pursues both differentiated and niche marketing strategies to reach the smallest groups in the marketplace, focusing on consumers who exhibit a readiness to buy.

UX design strategies have done wonders for ecommerce businesses as they have allowed marketers to segment markets right down to the individual consumer, using intelligence gained about their users to make their product stand out and generate more sales, get subscriptions and hit target numbers in transactions, etc. However, they have also drawn serious ethical concerns regarding dark patterns.

Deceived by designers

UX specialist, Harry Brignull coined the phrase ‘dark patterns’ to describe coercive and manipulative techniques used by websites and apps to influence users into making choices which they otherwise would not have made, or which are not - or might not be - in their best interests. Brignull lists 12 types of dark patterns:

  1. Trick questions
  2. Sneak into basket
  3. Roach motel
  4. Privacy Zuckering
  5. Price comparison prevention
  6. Misdirection
  7. Hidden costs
  8. Bait and switch
  9. Confirmshaming,
  10. Disguised ads
  11. Forced continuity
  12. Friend spam

"Forbes forecasts the global ad market to exceed $700bn in 2022."

Forbes forecasts the global ad market to exceed $700bn in 2022. According to IAB UK, the UK's Digital Adspend for the first half of 2021 was £10.5bn - a surge of 49% from the previous year.

Mathur et al (2019) discovered 1,818 text-based dark pattern instances from 53,000 product pages and Geronimo et al (2020) analysed 240 popular mobile apps and found that 95% of them contained seven different forms of dark patterns on average.

Nouwens et al (2020) scraped the designs of the five most popular consent management platforms on the top 10,000 websites in the UK and found only 11.8% met minimal requirements of GDPR. These statistics show the growing intensity of competition amongst businesses to reach their unsuspecting customers by hook or by crook.

Steering UK ecommerce

There is increasing interest in the research on dark patterns, as well as discussion on where to draw the line. The helpfulness and harmfulness may be ambiguous at times; designers may not be aware of their contribution to the ‘grey pattern’.

There are several legal hooks that have been curtailing dark patterns, including the Consumer Rights Act, Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations and the Data Protection Act. The ICO/CMA joint report, Data protection and privacy expectations for online advertising proposals, invites proposals which assure how businesses meet the requirements of data protection and competition law.

It is a known fact that there are gaps in the legislation, usually filled by the ethical frameworks/principles and professional practices. The ‘Bridge of Ethics’ proposed by UX designer Morten Rand-Hendriksen, which encourages designers to cross over four moral philosophies, is one of this author’s favourites.

Members of professional bodies such as BCS are guided by a code of conduct. Graduating students of BCS accredited degrees and BCS members, therefore, have a commitment to work in the public interest; thereby standing up to the people and organisations conducting deception by choice.

The question remains, will ethical principles and public outrage be substantial enough, or do we need stronger legislative / regulatory responses and more research output on dark pattern prevention?

About the author

Deepthi Ratnayake FHEA CITP MBCS is an experienced academic with proven skills in CS research.

View Deepthi's LinkedIn profile