Gerry Gaffney: The term “dark pattern” describes an element that’s designed to trick people into doing something that’s either detrimental to them or that they wouldn’t sort of choose to do knowingly. Usually we’re talking about, you know, online things, websites and apps and so on. But of course that sort of manipulation of people’s behaviour isn’t in any way new. I think of dark patterns as being kind of an anti-hero to the nudge. The nudge was designed to make it easy for people to make a decision that’s favourable to them and we often talk about things like savings and superannuation where people tend to go with the default choice and if you make a sensible default then it can help people make positive decisions for themselves and for society. One of the examples that’s often help up is the way Spain is automatically opt-in for organ donation and accordingly has a very high rate of organ donation. Whereas other countries where it’s opt-out unless you’ve actually opted in have a very low rate of organ donation. So you can nudge people to make, make good choices. But the dark patterns do things that like making it hard to unsubscribe, hiding the options, or they use word choices that make it confusing and tricky when signing up for something you didn’t want to sign up to. An to be honest. I haven’t put a whole lot of thought into this other than occasionally being annoyed by it because I kind of feel from a purely selfish point of view that I can spot them and avoid them.
I had an interaction with an organization in Melbourne where I live. It’s a not-for-profit and it’s an organization that puts on musical events and the like in a fairly formal venue, but they have… there’s an option when you buy a ticket to make a donation on top of the ticket cost and it defaults to $10.
Now presumably some people actually want to donate $10 or more as well as paying for their concert ticket. And I’d certainly consider making a donation myself but for the fact that I feel I’m being tricked into it. Now I did take this discussion onto Twitter a couple of times and most recently I got a response from them that really astonished me. They said that because they’re a not for profit and are accordingly in great need of donations. And they pointed out the fact that the donation was optional was clearly stated in the accompanying text and they said that they had run it past their legal department who said it was okay. Now to me, you know, running it past the legal department is the act of a scoundrel really, isn’t it, because the connection between the legal department and ethical behaviour is not particularly strong a lot of the time.
So let’s put aside the idea of “we explained in the instructions” because everyone knows that when it comes to online forms, putting something in the instructions is, you know, nobody’s going to see it unless they’re already hopelessly lost.
What I wanted to focus on for a minute is the argument that it was okay for them to do it because they needed the money. It was to me it was a bit like Tupac singing “I ain’t never did a crime I didn’t have to do.” You know, there’s a presumption that tricking some people into donating money accidentally will outweigh the detrimental effect of having people who noticed it like me, who will swear to never ever done anything to that organization. In fact, the underlying assumption probably in all dark patterns is that the user is a sucker and there’s one born every minute. I don’t believe that’s the case. Gerry Mac, you often write about the fact that the modern person is more connected, more clued-in and less gullible than ever before, and I think shouldn’t that be a strong enough argument to any organization if it values its brand and its good name and its standing in society it should purge its online and marketing teams of anyone that sort of shows this sort of ethical vacuum in there thinking.
What do you guys think?
Gerry Scullion: Well, the first thing with dark patterns, I always like to bring it back to, is there an intent there? Is it something like… There’s two different sorts of arguments. One, is this designed to intend to sort of, what’s the word I’m looking for, to deceive the user? What do you think? Do you think all of these dark patterns are, you know, are set out to fail people?
Gerry Gaffney: If it’s not deliberate, to me it’s not really a dark pattern. You can do something that causes, inadvertently,you know, you can have your O-rings fail at low temperatures and blow up a space shuttle. It’s not intentional. To me, intentionality is a key aspect of it.
Gerry Scullion: Yeah. I had one there recently with, with Bellroy, the Australian wallet company. I’m happy to talk about them because they… I bought a wallet that was quite expensive, I was treating myself, and got it sent over to Ireland. And then they sent me an email saying, hey, as a sign of a thanks for signing, we want to invite you to partake in a competition where you can win $5,000 worth of our bags. So I did it, but I actually used the G mail hack of putting my email plus firstname.lastname@example.org, which is a hack if anyone doesn’t know it. So I, I always track to see who’s using my data, if they’re going to sell it on. And sure enough, about two weeks later I started getting emails from, on that email address to Olympus and then to all these other companies and I went back to Bellroy and I said, hey, look, you didn’t explicitly tell me that you’re going to be sharing all my data.
And they’re like, Oh, It was in the terms conditions. In the smallest point text in the terms and conditions it was included. And when I said, well, what are you going to do about this they said, oh, well we’re happy to remove you from our mailing list. I said, I don’t care about your mailing list. I said, I want to be removed from all the companies that you’ve shared my data with and they says we can’t do that. And I mean like that is just, that was one of the worst examples I’ve seen of businesses who actually are just sharing data. They’re not, they’re hiding it. And that was, that was the last big dark pattern that I’ve seen. It’s awful.
Gerry McGovern: Yeah. You know, it’s a constant game as well that, you know, a lot of these, of cultures of, you know, the potential customer’s the sucker, the current customer’s the sucker and it still is… There’s enough suckers out there that if we do clever marketing and all that sort of BS and it does, it does work in a number of areas. But you know, if you look at it in the areas of, of car insurance or stuff like that, or these environments, everywhere… I don’t know if this happens in Australia, but do you know the way you get your, your annual insurance quote out from the car insurance company and they never give you last year’s amount because they’ve always increased it by 50 euros, but they don’t want you to be able to compare between this year and that and they figure out you won’t have a copy of last year’s, so that, you know, they’re poisoning the whole societal view of organizations, that organizations are constantly out to trick you because probably 60, 70 percent of them are.
That’s how they got to senior management positions. But by coming up with dark patterns, you know, type of business models that exploit customers. And then you got the counter things like Slack coming in where, you know, if you’ve got 20 people signed up and five aren’t using they give you a discount, which must be a total head-wreck for the SaaS model companies whose whole business model is having, signing up 250 and only having 100 using the system. I mean, that’s how, that’s how the senior managers make their bonuses and make their, make their targets in a lot of these companies. So it’s a war. There’s a war, you know, as you know, we become better educated… There’s certainly audiences out there that are becoming more savvy and there’s, there’s a growth in education and awareness at one level. But there’s always a bunch of people that are, you know, not watching or are open to being tricked. And you know, I, I think the ultimate dark pattern is what marketers call engagement. Because the engagement is not for good reasons, it’s keep them on the website, get them buying more. I mean, the whole concept of content marketing, etc. Yeah, not, not all of it is dodgy, but a huge amount of it is, you know, selling dodgy products essentially with clever content.
Gerry Scullion: A lot of these businesses you can guarantee that they’ve got a UX department as well and you know, they kind of say, well, if the UX department have looked over this, it must be user centred and must be human centred. That’s the bit that I get and I love the fact that Gerry Gaffney and myself and yourself call these companies out on Twitter, but what, what kind of change we are hoping to see by, by doing that?
Gerry McGovern: The way I think… if you say nothing there’ll definitely be no change. If you say something they’ll probably be no change, you know… And now and then, you might be saying something for 20 years and you know, the 10,000th time you’ll catch a wave, or you’ll initiate a wave or there’ll be another 15,000 people out there that says I have the exact same experience. And you will be the match maybe once in your life, that lights a fire and drives change. So, you know, we see these movements about people owning their data, etc. It’s only by this constant hum and constantly getting on these things that we drive change because the nature of most organizations that I’ve seen on the inside… it’s not that people are malicious, it’s that they see the customer as somebody to be exploited… The essence of marketing is to invent a world for something that is totally removed from what it, from what it actually is as, as a product or service.
Gerry Scullion: It’s a manipulation.
Gerry Gaffney: If you want to see a fantastic example of manipulation, in Australia here we’ve had a royal commission into the banking industry, the requirement for which was fought desperately by the, by the government who didn’t want it to happen, but it did happen and we’ve got the behaviour of particularly the major banks has been astonishing even to those of us who are as cynical as I am. So there’s things like fee for no service, which is a fantastic phrase. And also banks and insurance people, industry insurance companies charging dead people knowingly.
Gerry McGovern: You know, I’ve talked to bankers over the years, delivered strategies. They train people to manipulate older people to get money out of them and they target older people. I mean, there are scammers, and they’re trained to do that. And over the years I’ve noticed the really good people that have helped me in the banks have never progressed in their careers, but the real ugly people, the people who try to sell you crap at every… They’re the ones who get promoted. So the culture is, you know, the scammer gets up to become the CEO or the senior management and the people who actually look after the customers well stay as the local manager because not hitting their quarterly targets and their quarterly targets are based on scams. So, you know, unless we change that sort of culture and you know, I can’t wait for the day that, and I know that Apple are not perfect, but just to, to give it to the banks, to remove our business from them, payback time is coming…
Gerry Gaffney: But Gerry, nobody’s doing that. I was reading an article in the Irish Times yesterday as a matter of fact, I can’t remember who wrote it, but talking about the fact that Irish consumers who have bailed out the banks to the tunes of billions of dollars and suffered through a fairly major recession largely as a consequence of that bailout and are still not changing banks, you know, they’re saying with the same people who screwed them over last year and we’re going to screw them over next year again.
Gerry Scullion: I’ve seen that. I’ve conducted research in this space of Irish banks in the last two months and there’s a big differential between the Australian market and the Irish market as regards to loyalty. There’s like devout loyalty where there’d been nabbed earlier on in their, in their formative years, and, they’ve remained really loyal and they’re like, oh yeah, you know what I’m expecting loyalty in return for, for my long stay with this bank. And they don’t care. Like I don’t see the dial changing.
Gerry McGovern: It’s beginning. It’s beginning. I mean, loyalty is stupidity. The synonym of loyalty is stupidity. And Irish people have been pretty stupid, poorly educated. And you know, I remember many years ago reading these UK supermarket saying the Irish customers are pretty, are much more loyal. In other words, the Irish customers are much more stupid. You know, anybody who’s loyal to any organization is stupid. Either lazy or stupid. I mean the amount of organizations that deserve loyalty are one percent in the process. So basically it’s a lack of education. It’s laziness and a lack of an ability to, you know, to analyze and to compare. And do your research. That is changing, but it’s still 20 years behind Australia. Consumers are 20 years behind European consumers, you know, but it is changing. There’s a building of a change and that the younger generation, but we’re still 10, 20 years behind.
Gerry Scullion: Absolutely.
Gerry Gaffney: I’m not convinced about that Gerry Mac. We’ve got the same sort of inertia here as well in Australia where people don’t move banks. But you know, we’re, very much, it’s a big picture here, we’re talking about a lot of stuff here. I mean, well, I guess the bottom line from a dark patterns point of view is they can be successful in the short term for organizations whose ethics allow you to produce that sort of content.
Gerry Scullion: I think dark patterns is like, it’s the manifestation or it’s the by-product of a really toxic culture, it’s something that they don’t get. And that’s really what we need to focus our attentions on, is really changing the cultures internally and bringing the voice to the stakeholders who can actually help change that culture.
Gerry McGovern: Yeah, and you better hope with your dark patterns that there are enough suckers being born every minute. Maybe the ratio of suckers per minute being born is dropping so it might get to a point where there aren’t enough suckers left for your dark patterns. And when the people have been stung multiple times by you, you may live to regret it in the long term.
Gerry Scullion: Gerry Gaffney, do you want to wrap this up?
Gerry Gaffney: Dark patterns, just say no, as George, one of the George Bushes. No, who said that about the war on drugs? That was Ronald Reagan, wasn’t it? Just say no. Just say no to dark patterns. It wasn’t effective in the war against drugs. ..
Gerry McGovern: On a totally different point we need to change these languages of war and fighting as well.
Gerry Scullion: I’m just surprised Ronald Reagan was into The War On Drugs. I’m really into them, I think they’re a great band.