We’ve all run across them, and in more recent years a word is used to cover things in our life that just feel – wrong. I’m speaking about dark patterns. Things that force us, as humans interacting with the design, to use it in a way that feels unnatural and goes against the grain. You know it when you see it, it just feels wrong somehow, even if you can’t quite place words on it.
Whether it’s a used car salesperson trying to force me to pay more at the last minute with an upsell that I neither want nor need, or something less obvious, these patterns sit all around us and are pervasive in our everyday life.
Software is all too guilty of this, and I run across it in my everyday work. The biggest offender is canceling a subscription. If you’ve signed up for a newsletter, news subscription, monthly shipped product, or even the New York Times, you’ve come across this. It drives me nuts. I will raise hell to get out of anything that obfuscates my ability to leave. The moment I feel stuck with something, I want out, even if it was a wonderful service.
Earlier this year I had a bit of a scare where I thought I was losing my hair. I developed a bald spot at the back of my head. Completely bald, no hair, nothing. At 33 years old, it was the time for these sorts of things to happen. Instead of accepting my fate, I ordered a hair product online from an ad. The design of the website, the box, the subscription service; everything seemed perfect and good to go. I tried the product for a month and saw results. And only time will tell if I’m right. I realized that the hair loss was not a result of balding, but a case of alopecia; likely brought on by stress. Alright, glorious news.
I went to cancel the service and found that I couldn’t. Whether through malice or ineptitude, there was no way to use the website to cancel; the software ran me through a series of loops leading from one part to another, with no way out. I tried, the software would not allow me to cancel. Then, in a twist of irony, I didn’t feel comfortable complaining on their social media account. Would I want to admit hair loss? That’s embarrassing. Hopelessness washed over me, and I got mad; furious, in fact. Several months later I can still feel the emotions running through me at feeling misused.
I emailed customer service, got a standard reply that I was “holding it wrong”, I needed to go to the website. After another response or two, they agreed to cancel my service. I shouldn’t have had to do that though, there should have been a mechanism to do that from the site. It felt intentional; especially at a scary time that caused a lot of stress in my life.
This pattern exists in software the world over. It’s not just software, it’s everywhere. It doesn’t have to be this way. I find delight in things that let me escape, and come back if I want; that’s freedom, and I love an easy exit path. This hair care product could have been that; there’s a chance that my hoped for alopecia is wrong, and I’ll go bald again; would I care to try the product after that previous experience? Doubtful.
And so we come to maple syrup. I remember a time, back in the nineties, when the big syrup bottle my mom served our family for months at a time. We’d buy syrup and pull it out for pancakes and such. I’m guessing – and here I go into speculation territory, but again, the results are the same for the end customer – that a marketing executive somewhere, or a product designer, decided that the company could move more inventory if they made the opening to the lid wider. It pours out; fast. And so, we come to a situation where – when I go to the store and buy a big thick maple syrup bottle – I dread bringing it home. It’s frustrating.
I have two little children, and they like maple syrup waffles; an entirely reasonable activity. In their eagerness to enjoy the food, they often tip the bottle back; it’s heavy after all, and syrup flows out, flooding their waffles. My children don’t like this. They don’t want that much syrup; waffles shouldn’t float in liquid. And so, again, we run into a situation where they feel helplessness; they can’t serve themselves as a result, I have to help.
I try to remedy the situation by cutting a tiny hole in the seal, instead of pulling it off; that doesn’t work well though. The hole should just be smaller. My kids feel bad for wasting the syrup, and the vast majority of it goes into the trash; they don’t like to consume straight sugar. I’ve fielded apologies from them, when it was not their fault. The moment an alternative comes available, I’ll switch.
Dark patterns are a short-term fix; they don’t bring happiness and don’t bring love from the humans that experience them. I’ll push back and fight against any perceivable manipulation by products I use, and will go out of my way to pick something better. This is an opportunity for those who create things, the designers out there, to stand out with honest products that improve our lives.
Perhaps someone has designed a product to solve this. A lid that screws on, with a smaller opening, would earn its money back in a few months. I’d be down for buying one, even if it cost $5. We easily spend that much on wasted syrup every year. Keep an eye out for dark patterns and call them out when you see them; together we have a chance to make the world a better place.