I go through Schiphol airport most working days, just as a commuter, don’t get excited. Happily there is free wifi at the airport until I head underground to the train platform. Here’s what the login screen looks like for wifi.

Very simple interface, with clear instructions. But wait! That little box neatly positioned between “accept & connect” and ” terms and conditions” looks like you need to check it, until you read the text next to it. The first time I used the free wifi I checked the box in error and was taken to a purchase screen for premium wifi. I had to turn off wifi and turn it on again to connect to the free access wifi. I wonder how many people pay without realising they didn’t need to.

This is what is known as a dark pattern, a part of user interface designed to trick the user into making a decision that benefits the business. Many cases involve tricking you into opting into subscriptions, or buying extra services.

Computer users scan rather than read content on websites, and we are all used to the standards that have emerged online, we expect to have to tick that we agree to terms and conditions for example. Designers rely on us behaving predictably and design sites using those patterns.

But this predictability can be exploited by designers to generate dark patterns to trick us into buying something we don’t want, or sharing or email address, or preventing us from unsubscribing. In one great example cited on the Dark Patterns site the text explaining how to unsubscribe was in white, on a white background. Sometimes it’s a deceptive check box as in the Schiphol wifi example, so far 11 types of Dark Patterns have been identified.

Many companies are guilty of exploiting dark patterns on their e-commerce sites in deliberate and dodgy attempts to up-sell. Some of the most egregious examples of bait and switch cross into the territory of illegality. Most of the practices aren’t illegal – yet.

As a consumer it’s a good reminder to read carefully, as professionals in the digital world it’s a reminder to treat our customers fairly – the way we’d like to be treated in fact.

Image:  Texture |  Engin Akyurt via pixabay  |  CC0 1.0

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