Dark Patterns 101; or, How To Lose a Customer for Life

Interaction designers talk about “Dark Patterns”. These are designs which are intended to skew a user toward a particular behavior in a way that is morally questionable. Like the Dark Side, these patterns are quick and easy ways to profit, and have a corresponding cost on your soul and on your customer’s good will.

Here’s a great example: unsubscribing from a magazine. A year ago I signed up for Car And Driver, one of Hearst’s many offerings, for the low low LOW price of $5/year. A steal!

There was a catch, of course.

Sending in my subscription meant I was automatically enrolled for auto-renewing building. Auto-renew is itself a dark pattern, but one that has slowly become acceptable in society. I wasn’t sure how much they were going to charge me after renewal (hiding long term effects is another dark pattern), so I put a reminder in my calendar to cancel the subscriptions this Saturday.

This week Hearst sent me a small, non-descript postcard in the mail, mentioning that my account would be auto-renewed and the price ($11, if you’re curious; a 120% increase over what I had been paying). A lawsuit must have occurred, because I can’t imagine they would decide to send these out on their own.

I decided to cancel, and called the number on the postcard. I was immediately put in phone hell, with endless voice-activated options; eventually the voice happened to mention in an off-hand way that I could cancel via their website. Sold!

Here’s the website I was sent to:

dp1The link to cancel my subscription just JUMPS out at you, don’t it?

I had to use find-in-page to locate it. At least they didn’t use text-as-a-graphic, another questionable pattern. Here it is, buried in the middle of a list of things, a great dark pattern for options you don’t want people to find:

dp2I clicked on this, fully expecting more confirmation would be required–and I wasn’t disappointed. They hit me with a meaningless survey question:

dp3Adding extra steps to a process makes users abandon the process, a great dark pattern for things you don’t want people to do. They’re also holding your unsubscription hostage to providing them data, though by now even dumb companies have realized such data is pretty junky.

I answered “Any other reason?”, expecting more questions about my reasoning, but they missed an opportunity and went straight to this:

dp4This one’s actually a four-in-one!

  1. It’s an extra step; as noted above, users may think they’re done and stop here. They are not done.
  2. It’s a rude re-confirmation. I’ve already stated my intention twice; how many times do I have to tell you? Some users will literally feel bad at this point, and get cold feet about insisting. And then they keep paying you. Score!
  3. It’s delaying/distracting. Renew for two months, and hopefully you’ll forget about cancelling by then!
  4. It’s worded backward. I actually had to read it three times to make sure. Yes means do nothing. No means keep going. Sigh. At least (again, lawsuit?) they added the helpful text, “No, cancel my subscription“; otherwise this would be a true winner.

But wait! We’re not done! This led to:

dp5Another two-fer!

  1. Another rude re-confirmation / extra step
  2. Poor affordance. After establishing what buttons look like on previous screens, they mute the look of the button significantly.

I was a bit surprised at this. Even better, the button does not have a hover state at all! Hover states are a subtle affordance we use every day to determine what is clickable, so let’s make sure not to include it:

dp6I clicked this, and we were done–cancelled. I hope.

They then brought me back to the main page with an upsell (“sorry to see you go–here are two other magazines you might like!”), but at this point I was kind of numb. Dark Patterns: gotta love ’em.

Ironically, I subscribe to two Hearst publications, and was going to keep buying the other, but as a result of this experience I went ahead and cancelled them both. Nice job!

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One thought on “Dark Patterns 101; or, How To Lose a Customer for Life

  1. The Net Promoter System folks call this “bad profits.” Looks like you’ve experienced some of the worst of it that isn’t downright injurious.

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