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Identity & Technology

You Are Being Manipulated by Dark Design

This post is about something called "dark design". The concept behind dark design is fairly old, but it has only recently become more prominent as the web facilitates it quite nicely. The basic idea is that the concept of "design" usually has an element of utility to it. A good designer makes something easier to use, more efficient, more useful, or other positive factors. But of course, the real question is "easier for whom?" Think of the check-out counter at any supermarket. They conveniently design it so that candy and other impulse items are at easy reach as you you check out. That design might help you out, but it helps the store out a lot more often. That design is optimized for the store, not you.

 You can never have too many variations of M&Ms.

You can never have too many variations of M&Ms.

But on the web, people have taken this to new levels. For example, there is a dark design pattern called sneak into basket, that is basically taking your online shopping cart and adding items without your request. You then have to take a physical action to remove them. In the real world, this would be analogous to someone following you around the grocery store, and when you add a box of cereal in your cart, they add in a gallon of milk. If you don't notice, you pay for a gallon of milk you didn't want.

This pattern occurs in online identity as well. In a dark design pattern called roach motel (you get in, but you can't get out), Skype makes it very difficult to remove your online identity:

First, one is to go to their profile and “Remove your personal details by adding random characters in the fields…” If you want your Skype name removed from the directory as well, you’ll need to contact customer service. Hopefully, you’re not in a rush since directory removal might take up to 30 days."

Facebook and other online services make it similarly difficult to remove identities. However, one of the most egregious examples of this is the field of "free to play" games. A recent article in Cracked was written by a guy who lost $9,000 in the mobile game "Game of War". He highlights in great detail how the game manipulates people and takes advantage of human biases to hoover up money from them. The short version is that it relies heavily on human psychology, specifically our irrational "fear of loss" to make things work. The game has 43,000 new people sign up for it every day and has revenue of over $1.1M per day. And it is just one example of many that do the same thing.

 I'm sure the team at Game of War making $1M/day are unfulfilled, Ben.

I'm sure the team at Game of War making $1M/day are unfulfilled, Ben.

I used to think that slot machines had strong elements of dark design, but these games take it to a whole new level. They are skinner boxes, designed to use operant conditioning to addict as many people as possible and extract money.

In many ways, these are just like highly addictive drugs. Some people can use them responsibly, many, many people get hopelessly addicted, and they are popular because people want them. Trying to do anything about it would be as hopeless as the war on drugs. The best answer is to recognize when you are being manipulated, whether it is by dark design, operant conditioning, or other mind-altering techniques and avoid those things as much as you can.