3 Recent dark pattern implementations you have probably missed

In the wrong hands UX can be a dark art. I’ve rounded up three recent experiences that have got under my skin.

Everyday we unwittingly encounter dozens of systems designed to sub-consciously nudge us into taking actions we wouldn’t naturally do, but are mainly there to benefit the system masters – these are anti-patterns or dark-patterns.

Humble beginnings

Most dark patterns don’t have a malicious beginning, they usually start out life as ways to encourage a particular user behaviour, or subtly aid in reaching a business goal. Over time with continual optimisation and testing they take on a life of their own and become something else. Ultimately they occur when the focus of those manging the experience becomes more about eking the numbers and maximising <insert metric here> at all costs, over the impact and benefit to the user.

If you’re not vigilant about these things, you can very easily be duped – so here’s my recent pet peeves …

1 – iTunes and Apple Music

Apple Music MacOS App – showing a song list view

The release of MacOS Catalina in 2019 saw iTunes get retired, not a bad thing when it was clearly bloated and trying to do too much, and in many cases not  particularly well.

One thing iTunes did do well was the ability to browse and filter your music library, using a series of list box filters such as “genre”, “artist” and “album”. This meant you could filter down to a handful of albums and listen to these.

Since the arrival of the Music app, the flexibility to navigate your own music library has been greatly diminished. If you want to browse the songs in your library now in a list view, you still can but they’re all in a single list with no ability to filter – a bit pointless when you have thousands of songs.

Why? Looks like they did this to push their Apple Music subscription service, as it allows for more flexible browsing and richer features.

This dark pattern effectively made me change my behaviour, it made me switch to using Swinsian – a flexible MacOS app for browsing your music library.

Dark rating: 🖤🖤🖤🖤🤍

2 – Google search results (Sponsored links/Ads)

Not too long ago Google changed their search results page making two key changes.

  1. The design of a sponsored result (an ad)
  2. The design of a regular search result

Apart from the small “Ad” fav icon, the new design makes it more difficult to  discern an ad from an organic search result.

The old vs new Google sponsored link / ad

Our brains are wired to pick up visual patterns, in this case we would have used the shape and colour of the text to quickly discern ads from results, now we have less to go on. Furthermore over time we’ve learnt the Google visual language of search results, this change increases the likelihood we users will instinctively click on an ad as it shares the visual characteristics we learnt were previously only for organic results.

Ads and search results in a typical Google search results page

As Google is an ad platform, this move twists the knife for both the user and the organisation paying for the ad; more users are likely click on these links and generate greater revenue, and in turn increase the cost-per-click price for the ad. With a monopolistic hold on search and online ads, this move is akin to printing money, a clear win-win for Google.

Update 28 Jan 2020

Looks like Google have responded to the backlash on this and partially rolled back the change. By partially I mean they’re still user testing it or waiting for the furore to settle down before they recommit…

Dark rating: 🖤🖤🖤🖤🖤

3 – Amazon – Standard buy vs. Kindle eBook buy

This is a classic dark pattern involving purchase buttons that look similar but have different actions. If you’re on Amazon and buying a traditional book, on the standard product page there are two main calls to action: “Add to basket” and “Buy now with 1-click” – it’s pretty clear what each does.

Standard product buy buttons vs. Kindle buy buttons

On the Kindle product page it’s a little different, the primary call to action: “Buy now” – acts like a 1-click buy, but visually looks exactly like the “Add to basket”.

This changes the mental model for Kindle products when browsing and buying, it’s the one product you don’t add to basket and checkout with, you just buy it. So instinctively it’s very easy to buy the book rather than add it to your basket and shortlist as you can with all other products.

You can undo the purchase action and get a refund for an accidental orders but you’ll need to go into the orders section.

Amazon’s motivator in this space is that they make a larger mark-up on eBooks, and there is nothing physical to ship to the consumer, and it ties in customers to their Kindle platform – so for them it’s an all round win.

Dark rating: 🖤🖤🖤🤍🤍  – only because there is an undo