"Scams don't work if the victim knows what the hustler is trying to do."
March 19, 2014 7:09 PM   Subscribe

Dark Patterns is a term used to describe web design that intentionally exploits specific aspects of the users psychology to drive them into making certain kinds of decisions. [an update to this fantastic previously]

First is an excellent talk by Sarah Parmenter, which goes over the core concepts, then there is the video from darkpatterns.org which usefully provides visual examples of the kinds of sites that use these tactics. Then there is the slideshow Dark Patterns in UX: A Short Guide to Being Evil. This describes a number of the cognitive biases that are preyed upon, including Confirmation Bias, Ingroup Bias, Gambler’s Fallacy, Post-Purchase Rationalization. Neglecting Probability, Projection Bias. and Anchoring Effect.
posted by quin (48 comments total) 113 users marked this as a favorite
I was surprised to learn recently that the formerly reliable Download.com has fallen prey to these tactics. Luckily, you can use the custom installer from Ninite for all your bog-standard reinstallation needs.

More problematic is the acquisition of SourceForge by ad-pushing hacks -- it's far more irreplaceable.
posted by Rhaomi at 7:27 PM on March 19, 2014 [11 favorites]

I would totally fall for the AXA Travel Insurance trick question if I was in a hurry. Bastards.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:32 PM on March 19, 2014

Also, for the CLI-driven Mac users out there, homebrew-cask provides similar functionality to Ninite. It's good stuff.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:35 PM on March 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

I totally love this. A++ good post.
posted by daq at 7:44 PM on March 19, 2014

I recently upgraded free AVG and it took my three times to download the right one because of several factors designed to get me to dowload the trial version of the paid software instead.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:45 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

Rhaomi: "Ad-pushing Hacks" needs more garlic . . .

How about "Marketing Sluts" . . . ?
posted by RoseyD at 8:07 PM on March 19, 2014 [1 favorite]

That's why my Skepto-meter is pegged so high all the time.

You can fool some of the people some of the time, but I operate on that wise old saying direct from the Fool's mouth. You know the one from Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice--you can't get fooled again.
posted by BlueHorse at 8:23 PM on March 19, 2014 [2 favorites]

What is the graphic at 1:15 supposed to mean? Is the dark side the rainbow or the concentrated light beam? Why is it going through Darth Vader's head?
posted by 3FLryan at 8:28 PM on March 19, 2014

My own particular rage focus is how the Flash download page tries to give you a version bundling McAfee. grrRRAARR!
posted by JHarris at 8:41 PM on March 19, 2014 [12 favorites]

This is why I love working on internal company projects. No drive to maximize profits or deceive anyone into anything; just get the thing working fast, working reliably, working predictably, and providing the right kind of assistance so that the user can get their job done and move on to the next thing.

Back in the day, I worked on a few "dark sites", which at the time (late 90s) meant a web site built in anticipation of some corporate badness breaking into the light of day, at which point they'd push the site out, point a domain at it, and be all "oh-gee-we-had-no-idea-this-would-happen-but-here-we-are-being-proactive-and-honest-with-you-about-it." Nevermind that the site -- and the problem -- had been known about for years.
posted by davejay at 8:57 PM on March 19, 2014 [9 favorites]

Ninite fans may also want to check out chocolatey.
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 9:21 PM on March 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

Wow, this site has been updated into total junkiness. What happened to the sidebar? the text references it, but it's gone. You used to just click through to a type and get a long, tumblr style page that showed every example without having to drill down multiple clicks deep.

The site has gone WAY backwards usability wise, and also needs some new examples. Kinda sad actually, i love the concept and loved it when i first saw it not that long ago.
posted by emptythought at 9:37 PM on March 19, 2014

"Dark Patterns" is waaaaaaay too cool of a name for this. More like "sneaky, scamming fucks exploiting low-experience users such as old ladies and children".
posted by young_son at 11:06 PM on March 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

"Scams don't work if the victim knows what the hustler is trying to do."

Knowledge is power, but many scams work even if you know the scam or you know you're being scammed. Thinking you're safer because you have a vague understanding of some dark patterns is a prelude to being ripped off.
posted by zoo at 1:36 AM on March 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

A site about dangerously misleading design that is essentially unusable without JavaScript enabled? Brilliant!
posted by ob1quixote at 1:56 AM on March 20, 2014 [7 favorites]

It's particularly egregious because a simple dropdown link menu is something that seconds of searching would find a CSS only solution for.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:59 AM on March 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

This isn't a Javascript issue. Or at least not a Javascript-specific issue.

The Dark Pattern's site menu doesn't work at all in iOS.
posted by ardgedee at 3:39 AM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

the site really did used to be _totally_ different too, and worked fine on iOS or other tablet browsers/touch interfaces.

this is the old site. it was very minimal and plain, but that kinda fit the content and was actually sort of refreshing.

why they had to totally shart it up? who knows.
posted by emptythought at 3:47 AM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

i recently installed Creative Cloud. It installed several search-rerouting trojans. I have no recollection of approving that install, though I'm sure I "must" have. Took me half an afternoon to clean that up.
posted by lodurr at 5:01 AM on March 20, 2014

Not that I disapprove of the aim, but "Scams don't work if the victim knows what the hustler is trying to do" doesn't really hold, and someone familiar with 'dark patterns' as a concept ought to know that.

Lots of scams work perfectely well -- some work even better -- if the mark knows it's a scam.
posted by lodurr at 5:13 AM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Those competing download buttons almost always fool me. I think I've almost installed 7-Zip about a dozen times.
posted by klarck at 5:48 AM on March 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

one of the key ideas that makes this possible is embodied in this phrase, which I encountered through my now-former employer: selling is helping.

I've just got done spending 8 years in advertising, at a small firm. At one point the company was courting small banks*, and partnered with a company that did customer service training for banks and credit unions.

Of course it was mostly really sales training, and especially training on how to upsell -- and by 'training', I mean 'indoctrination' into the idea that selling is helping. They even used that phrase -- they repeated it a lot, apparently: selling is helping.

Their targets were primarily tellers -- that was their big thrust, training the tellers to upsell and calling it customer service by drilling into them that selling is helping.

The first time i heard our CEO parrot that line I got this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

When I started working there, I could have actually gone to them and made an argument on ethical grounds for un-doing a mistake that had resulted in better opt-in. That was the point at which I knew that was no longer going to be possible -- the point at which I learned that there really wasn't anything different about this company than any other ad agency.

*most genuinely small banks did relatively well after the crash. the company's pitch was 'now's the time to double-down on your marketing and snatch up the people who are leaving Wells-Fargo.'
posted by lodurr at 5:57 AM on March 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

klarck, 7-zip does that? bummer. i like 7-zip.
posted by lodurr at 5:57 AM on March 20, 2014

Iodurr, I'm having a hard time understanding what you feel is wrong about training tellers to upsell at a bank. Everyone upsells. It's how you grow your business. What's unethical about that? Selling is helping...helping the bank make more money, which hopefully makes the teller more money. If the bank client gets a broader range of services, or upgrades to a set of accounts that pays more in interest, what's the problem? Did the bank do bait and switch loan agreements? Or put high risk clients into high interest loans?
posted by Kokopuff at 7:55 AM on March 20, 2014

As an aside...I had no idea organ donation was an opt-out system anywhere.
posted by Thorzdad at 8:08 AM on March 20, 2014

lodurr: i recently installed Creative Cloud.

I'm always surprised that Adobe is such an asshole about this stuff. Aren't they making enough money selling overpriced, bloated apps already?

Kokopuff, try saying it this way:

Helping is selling
Helping is selling
Helping is selling

Now, imagine you're sitting in your doctor's office, and he or she has just come in and closed the door. "Hiya Koko, what seems to be the problem?"

I've been a successful salesperson in the past because I did a great job helping people, partly because I really enjoyed it. There was no upselling involved. I recognize that this was a non-standard situation, and maybe even an antique relationship. Hey, this is Canada.
posted by sneebler at 8:23 AM on March 20, 2014

Kokopuff, can't answer for lodurr but here are some issues that I have with upselling.

1) Sometimes it's done intrusively. "Hi, thanks for calling Salamander Bank. While we're retrieving your records, please listen to this unskippable 8 minute spiel on home improvement loans."

2) Sometimes it's EASY IN, HARD OUT. "If you want to join our low-cost $19.99 protection plan, just stay anything and you will be automatically enrolled" "Um, how do I cancel th-" "THANK YOU for joining our protection plan! You will be billed $19.99 a day. You may cancel at any time by sending a notarized affidavit by registered mail to 2020 Lizard Lane, Phoenix AZ, 85050, containing the following information: Your name, your date of birth, your account number, your policy number, your social security number, your mother's maiden name, your last five addresses, your next address, your most embarrassing secret, a sample of your blood, the UTC time right now, the current distance from Mars to Venus in cubits, the following code that will not be repeated: Seven-Tango-Zulu-Niner-Echosray-Deldia-%$^^#!, and a statement that you acknowledge that Salamander Bank will not be held responsible for any losses incurred in the deliberate mishandling of your application. Please allow three to six months for processing."

3) Sometimes the product being sold is being pushed regardless of whether or not it is suitable for the consumer. "Selma Smith, in honor of your 95th birthday we're offering you a special rate on our new auto loan!"
posted by xigxag at 8:39 AM on March 20, 2014 [6 favorites]

It's a number of things that bother me about that phrase.

First, it just reeks of self-justification. You have a requirement to upsell to your friends and neighbors (their clients are mostly small-town banks, so this is definitely a friend-and-neighbors sell), so you tell these people in small-town that they're not just selling, they're helping. That makes it all better. But that rationalization can be used for anything you "believe" in, up to and including hard drugs. I'm "helping" this person by selling them a car; I'm "helping" them by showing them this more expensive model because I think they might benefit from 4WD; I'm "helping" them by pushing the Escalade because I think they'll be much happier with that than the Tahoe; etc.

Second, it's nonsense on the face of it. Selling is helping? Really? Could be, maybe, but in most cases, you're by definition trying to get them to buy something they hadn't planned to buy, whether it's extra features on their checking account or a home equity line of credit (that they maybe shouldn't really be taking out).

It's just creepy, really. And it's of a piece with the rationalizations people deploy in making the decision to enable this kind of design.
posted by lodurr at 8:57 AM on March 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Oracle deserves to be called out for darkness.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:52 AM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

If only we could still say 'Sun deserves to be called out for darkness.' But 'Oracle' is ironic enough in its own way.

Mozilla is actually getting pretty bad. I got trojanware when I had to manually upgrade Waterfox a few weeks back.

Microsoft always wants to install the Bing Bar and Bing Desktop, but they honor my 'no thanks' selection from update to update, so they actually play pretty nice as these things go.
posted by lodurr at 10:08 AM on March 20, 2014

... except that's where I got the binary and the installer has mozilla branding.
posted by lodurr at 10:35 AM on March 20, 2014

Bill Hicks' advice to people in advertising and marketing applies quite nicely to dark pattern adepts.
posted by mondo dentro at 11:59 AM on March 20, 2014

There should be a moratorium on posting that Bill Hicks clip. It's one of those rare occasions when someone manages to become famous for being simultaneously inane and vile. Really, he should have just killed himself 10 years earlier and saved us the squick of having to listen to that shit so many times since then.*

*See what it feels like? and I wasn't even telling you to kill yourself.
posted by lodurr at 1:59 PM on March 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Thanks but no thanks for the suggestion, lodurr.
posted by mondo dentro at 3:32 PM on March 20, 2014

Lots of scams work [perfectly] well -- some work even better -- if the mark knows it's a scam.

This isn't clear to me. Can you explain?
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:36 PM on March 20, 2014

Helping is selling

I think sales depend upon salesmanship only when the product doesn't really help. When the product is useful, sales depend upon the relative value of the product, all else being equal. This was impressed upon me in the implantable medical device arena, where all kinds of money was spent on sales and marketing ploys, which maybe kinda sorta had an impact on market share, but when the company came up with a unique feature that we were able to demonstrate had concrete benefits, market share shot up clearly, in one case doubling share from 25% to 50% of the $2B market for such devices. My little clinical group was given stingy little budgets compared to the marketing and sales groups, so the commonly held belief by leadership was that we weren't so important to revenue in comparison.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:43 PM on March 20, 2014

This isn't clear to me. Can you explain?

I think the idea is that they know it's a scam, but they think they're smarter than it and they can game the scam and/or the person who thinks they can scam them because the salesman is dumb and takes them for a rube, or whatever.

sort a reverse psychology kinda thing, vaguely.

At least... i think?
posted by emptythought at 4:05 PM on March 20, 2014

That's one way it works. It's really common. I've seen skilled salesmen set that situation up a lot of times.
posted by lodurr at 4:15 PM on March 20, 2014

I guess I can see how letting them know part of the scam can make the marks more vulnerable by increasing their confidence that they know what's what. I still fail to see how letting the mark know the whole thing ever increases vulnerability, though.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:29 PM on March 20, 2014

... except that's where I got the binary and the installer has mozilla branding.

I don't think that's the case. Do you have a link?

Waterfox is compiled by other folks. If it has Mozilla branding it's only because that's in the source code. I really don't think Mozilla would be into distributing malware.
posted by JHarris at 7:46 PM on March 20, 2014

Checking their site, "powered by Mozilla" doesn't necessarily mean approval by the Mozzies. I do notice their downloads are through Sourceforge; maybe that's the source of it?
posted by JHarris at 7:47 PM on March 20, 2014

metal_wimp: but the mark never knows the "whole thing", even here.

in any case, I was speaking to the principle, which is flawed. If one takes as one's guiding principle that 'the scams don't work if the mark knows what the hustler is trying to do,' then a good hustler will still take you -- and for some types of people, they'll get taken even more often. You can see it most markedly with how smart, educated people often behave around religious cults.

Public education is also problematic, for a bunch of reasons. As you can see from comments in-thread at the articles, and even here, some people, even educated, just don't believe they are being influenced in this way. (The whole "psychobabble" dismissal.) And for the rest -- well, it's going to nail the best of us. There were a number of people in this thread who related stories of being taken in by dark patterns, and I'll warrant a number of those are people doing interaction design.

W.r.t. this, as I said, I agree with the aim, which is to stop people from doing it. I just don't think educating the public in this particular way is going to do a hell of a lot to stop it. The more critical avenue is the ethical one -- and while I agree that pressure on dev/design folks is important, public education can help there by reducing people's willingness to go along or accept. "Name and shame", but from a public source, not an industry source. That's what makes it cost effective or not for the entities doing it.

Also we need to recognize that the dark patterns themselves are only a symptom of a larger ethical problem, which treats human interaction as a way for large, quasi-sentient group minds (a.k.a. 'corporations') to harvest revenue. Really as long as that's our paradigm we'll be vulnerable to this exploit.
posted by lodurr at 4:24 AM on March 21, 2014

Something struck me as I was commenting on facebook on a friend's thread about this: that dark patterns are really bad branding.

And that therein lies an angle for people trying to argue against them in their orgs.

One common dark pattern I'm sure we've all seen is 'unsubscribe@example.com' -- unlinked, in small print, in the footer of the email "newsletter". This is clearly a "nuisance-out" scenario, and it will reduce the number of unsubs in at least a couple of ways:
  1. It's a nuisance to copy the email, create a new email, write the email, and send it.
  2. Some people just don't trust email as a vector for unsubscribing. We coach people to not reply to spam, and this is basically replying to spam -- they've got to do something they've been coached not to do. So they just delete the message and forget it.*
The thing that struck me is that this is a scam in 2 ways:
  1. It's a scam on the users in the obvious dark-pattern way (easy in, hard out). That's obvious.
  2. But it's also a scam on the client who's paying for that email (think of the employer as the designer's/developer's client for the moment), because think of what that modality just did: It turned a person who wanted to unsubscribe from an email into a surly mark. From a branding or marketing perspective, this is precisely what you don't want. (So why do it? Because it improves your metrics by reducing the unsub rate, and you can easily handwave over the damage to your client's brand.
I have actually used that second point successfully to argue against using unlinked email addresses, in the past, before we used a provider that inherently prevented us from doing that. Because it did come up, via that blinkered focus on metrics we so often see.

*or do what I sometimes do when I'm particularly annoyed: set up a filter to always send that email to spam. on gmail, that doesn't hurt them, but if I were on AOL it wouldn't take many of those to hurt them, since marking an email as spam on AOL automatically sends an abuse complaint to the sender. Get more than 0.04% of those on a routine basis at most reputable providers (I know this is policy at MailChimp and Campaign Monitor), and they'll ban your account. Of course, they don't actually let you do this particular trick, so they're not the best examples, but you get the point.
posted by lodurr at 5:02 AM on March 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

i recently installed Creative Cloud. It installed several search-rerouting trojans.

Did you pirate it? Because I've installed it as well and I'm genuinely concerned about this comment. I can find no interesting search results for creative cloud search trojan.
posted by Wood at 1:33 PM on March 21, 2014

zoo: ""Scams don't work if the victim knows what the hustler is trying to do."

Knowledge is power, but many scams work even if you know the scam or you know you're being scammed. Thinking you're safer because you have a vague understanding of some dark patterns is a prelude to being ripped off.

"So you have to be very careful. What seems like a scam may not be a scam, but somebody may try to turn it into a scam! But that in itself may be the scam."
posted by symbioid at 10:07 PM on March 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

"...scam scam scam scam, scam scam scam scam, scamity scam! Wonderful scam!"

"Shut up! Shut up!"
posted by JHarris at 8:30 PM on March 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

Interesting. Thanks, quin.
posted by homunculus at 9:22 PM on March 22, 2014

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