Dark Patterns


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

Train connection

I am writing this on a train, racing from Amsterdam to Paris. There is some doubt whether I will be able to post it from the train.

Thalys promises wifi is available on this trip. But the service is intermittent at best. When it does work it’s incredibly slow, and the whole user experience is horrendous.

Here’s what I’d like; a code included on my ticket that gave me access to the Thalys wifi network, the code could be time-limited, so only valid for the time of my journey. If it was really clever it would know when my train had arrived in Paris and only then switch off the wifi access. All the pieces to build this exist, there is no radically new technology in this.

Actually here’s what I’d really like; free open access for the duration of my journey.

What I got:
– option to select country/language
– forced to create an account, which might sound like a great way to collect email addresses except that I gave them my real email address to receive the ticket and now I’m telling them my spam account.
– asked to state my nationality and language preference (I lied)
– asked to give my name and family name (I lied)
– asked to answer a secret question (my favourite colour is green)

Then asked to login.

I got online briefly, and then off, then on, then slow, then off. On top of which I am regularly asked to login again, and if I click refresh while the wifi is not available I am thrown int the portal page… In French. Despite having specified my language preference. Twice. Just for fun something about the Thalys portal regularly crashes the browser (safari + iPad).

Good wifi seems to be very challenging to set up for large numbers of users, and doing so on a moving vehicle even more challenging. But Virgin Airlines do it. At 10,000 metres above the earth.

So it can not be impossible to have a good consistent service on a train, and it must be possible to improve the user experience of using the wifi while on board.

as predicted I could not upload this on the train, but I might have to take back a previous rant – I’m in a mid-level hotel in Paris which offers free wifi

5 Stars for Hotel Wifi

There’s a hotel that has gone beyond providing free wifi, they’ve built their service model around it. Of course this hotel is not in Europe, where business hotels still charge you as if wifi were a special service – instead of normal infrastructure. (I’ve complained before about European business hotels who charge for wifi.) It’s in the Aloft Hotel in Thailand. (Owned by Starwood Hotels, a US company with a range of global hotel brands).

Not only do you have free wifi, you’re handed a phone that gives you all the controls you need, can act as a local wifi station, and as a local phone – avoiding those roaming charges.

For now it does does mean a separate phone, which means carrying two phones, and the risk that the data of any webvisits and phone calls are handed back to the hotel when you check out. In the future it will be built as an app for you to download according to Fingi the company behind the technology.

If only European hotels would wake up and smell the competition.

5 Essentials for Wifi in Airports

I’ve been through quite a few airports in the last couple of months, and at each one I’ve tested whether wifi was available. In most cases yes, but rarely is it done well – here’s what airports should do.

1 Easy to access

I want to get online within one or two clicks. I want to get to my email to work, or to the internet to entertain myself. Accessing your wifi service should be as easy as you can make it.

Athens wasn’t; I was sitting in front of a sign promising me wifi access, the only network I could find was “Wifi_Business” which gave me a page in Greek, from which I eventually found a link to a page in English which told me I needed to to access “wifi_free”. It took another ten minutes of wandering and testing and fiddling around to get that to work.

2 Free

You don’t charge me for the electricity of the lights or the water in the bathrooms. Don’t charge me for wifi.

Airports in Zurich, Auckland and Amsterdam all wanted me to pay for the service. I’m stuck in your airport for a few hours between flights – access to wifi makes that bearable, possibly even entertaining. It must be worth something to you to have happy transit passengers. Even the reduction in questions to your info desk or check-in staff must translate to a cost benefit for you.

3 Fast

Whatever I’m doing online I don’t want to wait 5 seconds for a page to load. Make sure your signal and bandwidth deliver a fast wifi service.

The airport at Kuala Lumpur offers free wifi, but on both days I was transiting KL it was as slow as a wet week. With 10 second pageloads it was neither useful nor fun to use.

4 Unlimited time

Given that we’re required to check in hours before the flight, and that transit times are 90 minutes or more (on intercontinental routes), don’t limit the time I can be online.

Athens gave me sixty minutes of free wifi – cool. But my transit time was 3 hours.

5 Network your wifi

Visitors will move through the airport, they may have to wait at the check-in desk, they may stop at a cafe after check-in, they may have to wait at the gate. Don’t make them access new wifi hubs or log in again.

At Corfu airport (which delivered easy, free, fast, unlimited wifi) the service is not networked, so as I moved from one hub to another I had to go back to the settings panel on my iPad and select a new wifi server.

Of the airports I’ve visited of late I think Sydney and Hong Kong were the only two who met all the above criteria. What’s the status of wifi at the airports you use? Any good examples of wifi service to share?

image Free Wireless Internet /Wesley Fryer/ CC BY 2.0

Why no Wifi?

I took an overnight trip to London last month, I stayed in a nice hotel, not far from Trafalgar Square. A hotel that uses “classic luxury” as a descriptor. They wanted to charge me to use their wifi, in fact on check out they tried to charge me for 3 minutes internet time.

Opposite the hotel was a Costa Cafe, with good coffee, nice staff and free wifi. So I wandered across the road, ordered a large latte and used wifi there.

So why couldn’t the hotel provide free wifi? I pondered this as I sipped my coffee. To start with I was a bit annoyed and was working up to a good rant, but on reflection it makes sense.

The cafe has a lot of competition, several other cafes in walking distance and a bookstore with wifi. So if providing wifi attract more customers, or encourage customers to stay longer – and order a second cup, it’s well worth the costs. It’s a matter of beating the competition.

Hotels with a large proportion of business travels have customers who are less price sensitive since it’s often their company paying, and not funded from their own pocket. The extra charges for wifi will be picked up by expenses.

I predict a change; free wifi is becoming an expectation in any public space and I know one Asian-based businessman who includes it as criteria in selecting a hotel. No free wifi, no booking.