Welcome to episode 126 of the Digital Life, a show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
Jon, it was a dark and stormy night.
Yes I’ll pick up on that wonderful lead in to announce our podcast topic for the day which is dark UX patterns. Yeah and it’s Halloween coming up so it’s a perfect time for that. I want to mention that Harry Bignull is the curator of darkpatterns.org. I did a little reading on his site to prep for our podcast today, and essentially if you’re in the UX business and you’re not familiar with this particular collection of patterns it’s worth looking at. Generally speaking dark UX patterns are those dirty UI tricks that designers who have an idea of how to manipulate people in their workflow, use tricks to either get folks to purchase things they don’t want, to opt into things that they’re not interested in opting in for, to improve their conversion rates. It’s sort of the equivalent of the street hustle being applied to the e-commerce and digital worlds. Dirk, I know you have some very, very strong feelings about opt in and opt out patterns. What strikes you about this sort of online trickery when it comes to user experience?
I mean I’ve talked about this before on the show and I haven’t in a while so I don’t mind dusting it off. The problem is capitalism, the problem is businesses and individuals are incentivized to try and hoard capital and wealth at any cost, and the result is, particularly as companies get bigger, as entities get bigger and less connected to the individual consumer, they are going to start doing nasty and naughty things to get more money, and dark UX, what we’re calling dark UX, is one great example of that in the context of software and design.
Yeah I think there is unfortunately, part of the truth of being online is that it’s changed our reading habits really, like your … It’s much more difficult to read with a lower resolution screen, so immediately you’ve got to focus a little bit more on all of these, all of the words that are strung together in long paragraphs, and you scan, that is the nature of online reading. It’s very different from the print experience, and because of that there are just numerous opportunities to insert a word here and there, or to do what appears to be bad design but it’s actually very deliberate choices for making it hard for people to parse.
I’m glad that there’s a term for discussing this, I had not really considered dark UX, it sounds like something Darth Vader should be doing, but it really is sort of the unsavory side of our business. I run into these things because when you’re dealing with older parents who may not be as familiar with the online ecosystem and you’re trying to set up things for them, you sort of realize as you’re walking through all of these forms that there are lots of ways for them to get sidetracked into sort of lucrative cul-de-sacs for the company whether it’s setting up antivirus software, or setting up their computer so they can chat with their friends or anything like that.
I guess to me there’s, having done a lot of this sort of computer set up, it kinds of makes me a little bit upset now. I mean I didn’t used to feel this way, I used to sort of blame my parents for not being able to parse these things and do it themselves, but now that we have this descriptor to loop all these things together and to hold it in this one bucket, I’m like, ah, that really is somebody with malignant intent who is trying to take advantage of my parents. I mean the same sort of UX patterns get used in a voice UI, right? If you want to expand this conversation to the voice UI a little bit, you get endless phone calls that are meant to scare you into buying something. Sometimes they’re robo-calls, right?
I hardly answer my phone at all at home because it’s all filled with robo-calls. I think that’s indicative of sort of the same thing, how about you?
Yeah for sure. Another example sticking with voice for a minute is customer service phone trees. Those are designed specifically for the company. The company takes their employees and says, “These are our most valuable customer service people. We want them to be reached the least. These are our next most valuable, we want them to be reached … ” They parse it based on themselves. They say, “Given our organization what’s most profitable for us? How can we design this?”
The consequence is the design of systems that for the user are horrific. They send us to the wrong place, they waste our time as we go through menus and trees. I’m not a big fan of user-centered design, but it’s as opposite of user-centered as it could possibly be. When I get on those now I’m just immediately, if it’s voice, I’m going, “Operator, operator, operator,” like fuck all, right? I take for granted that they’re going to stick the shiv in me, and make it really hard for me to get done what I need to do, so I’m going to try and fast track my way to a human. Once I get to a human I’m going to pretty quickly be saying, “May I speak to your manager?” I’m just going to cut out all the cruft that they’ve put there. Most people won’t cut out that cruft and so they’re going to make their money, they’re going to pump the machine, but at what cost? I mean making people agitated, really in meaningful ways reducing sort of the happiness and just enjoyment of life that people have, it’s horrendous, I think it’s criminal actually.
Yeah, that’s a good topic area to go into, the voice UI phone trees that we’re all familiar with, and we just kind of put up with it because, I don’t know because there aren’t a lot of other options, you just sort of have to. I wonder if there’s something there once you identify the problem, like it seems to me that if you have a preference for … This is sort of pathetic, the competitive advantages, our operators actually answer the phone and I’ve seen that you can get to a human being with our bank. I’ve seen that advertised, but this computerized intermediary that’s sending you off into all these areas where you don’t want to be, that’s just something that we’re sort of familiar with in the digital age, and it’s a shame. The cadence of your automatic response which is requesting the operator, that is exactly the same thing that I do.
It’s almost as if there’s a secret language for getting through these things if you’re familiar enough, but if you’re unfamiliar then you’re stuck in the phone tree. There’s a movie that my kids like called The Incredibles which is from Pixar. There’s a moment in there where this woman knows the exact form to fill out at an insurance company and the evil boss of Mr. Incredible says, “She’s penetrating the system! How does she know our secrets?”
Which makes me think that finding these secret tunnels through dark UX patterns is probably not a real good way for people to get satisfaction. There needs to be some other level of design integrity that allows for human interaction. I don’t know what it’s called but like the good housekeeping seal of approval is now the a good UX seal of approval, something like that.
Yeah. Yeah I mean we can go more explicitly back to dark UX patterns in a second but just to keep on this customer service phone thing. The problem isn’t always the phone tree, right? Sometimes it’s the customer service professionals themselves. I mean this weekend I spent about five and a half hours on the phone with Microsoft customer service. One of the people I talked to, everyone I talked to was Indian or similarly from the Indian subcontinent. This one woman who I believe was Indian, I talked to her for, I don’t know, and hour and fifteen minutes and she never got my name right. There were six different times that I stopped. I said, “My name is not Drik, it’s Dirk.” She said, “Oh yes, sir,” then five minutes later she’s saying Drik again.
The impact of that again on my psychological well-being is brutal. It reminds me that Microsoft doesn’t seem me as a valuable customer. They’re not willing to invest in someone providing me service who can say my name correctly, who culturally understands who I am and what I’m dealing with. They’ve moved it to the least expensive option possible and to me that’s another brand of sort of dark business if you will. Making design choices around systems that are sort of explicitly bottom line based, and explicitly to the detriment of the customer. I’m not going to forget that Microsoft sent me to that horrible customer service process where they couldn’t even pronounce my name right after repeated reminders.
Yeah, that’s an interesting way of expanding this conversation into, call it the business systems that have this intent that is not consumer focused in the least. This touches on customer experience, but I think that dark UX patterns is part of this Venn diagram of these intersecting pieces that are advantageous for a corporation, but necessarily sort of anti-user, anti-user patterns I think.
Yeah and I mean what these things, like the LinkedIn example you pointed out to me. They’re sort of hidden. They’re sort of sneaky. You can’t necessarily see them clearly with these big companies. At the end of it it’s called dark UX, but in the old days they were called shysters, they were called scammers, they were called liars. When it was one to one they were snake oil salesmen. Now in the big company, in the scale of it all, it gets lost and minimized when in reality it’s just base bullshit.
Yeah, it puzzles me why, I guess we’re all a bit sort of busy and we don’t really have the time to put these puzzle pieces together, but the evolution of this sort of customer service, to be more user-centered, I think that’s a 21st century business opportunity, whereas at the end of the 20th century it was all about sort of making your supply chain very inexpensive, and ultimately sending the work wherever it was sort of most benefit to the company. I think we’re seeing a reversal of that right now.
Are we? Are we? I don’t know. I mean when I think of CEOs who, big company CEOs who I find admirable. I mean one of them who I would have said in the past was Jeff Bezos. Started a book selling company. Seems like a nice geeky guy. The way Amazon behaves now, if you had Jeff Bezos sitting in his garage 20 years ago, he would have said his company would never behave that way, but here it is. Here’s Amazon freezing out competitors with bullying business tactics if people don’t do things exactly the way they want they get shut down and shut out with strong-arm strong-handed crap. That guy before he was the CEO of this conglomerate never would have stood for it, and now he’s presiding over the company that’s doing it. I don’t know I mean you name for me a big company that’s really doing it differently, that really is, because I don’t think they are. I think that once a company gets to a certain size it goes down the path of evil. Evil is probably too loaded of a word. It goes down a path of badness. Even if your motto is not do evil, right?
I’m highly skeptical if that’s changing or going to change at [scale 00:14:39].
Yeah, yes, point in the manner, I very much agree that there’s probably very few if any sort of businesses that could map towards being consumer friendly or customer friendly in that way. I do think there is evidence of sort of smaller efforts to be more customer centric. There’s the sort of locating your call centers for instance in parts of the US, where there are folks who are familiar with the culture of the folks they’re talking to as your example from the weekend. I do think there is consumer push-back here on the sort of crappy experiences that dark UX, the voice UI that sends you into oblivion, whether or not that ends up just being a bunch of lip service from the companies that are implementing these things, I don’t know, but I do think that there’s more push-back than there has been, and it seems like we’ve identified a sort of serious problem with digital interactions with large entities.
Yeah so there is more push-back and there’s some change because of it but that change is, I can only guarantee it’s financially driven. They’re saying, “Uh-oh, we’re starting to see a drop off in customers, and we’re getting these reports of all these pissed off customers about this customer service thing.” ROI wise, if we are not losing these customers we’re gaining more if part of it is this on-shore call center. Those are the kind of … There’s nobody saying, “You know what? I went through our system and it sucks. I went through it myself four hours, miserable, we’re not putting our customers through this. We’re going to do a better way because it’s the right thing to do and it will make us a better company ultimately.” That’s not it. It’s all the accountants, the bottom line, that’s the problem. Darkness comes from that mentality. Darkness comes from the bottom-line mentality because it strips out the empathy, it strips out the compassion, it strips out the service for the consumer and it focuses on the profits for the organization.
Yeah, yeah, well said, Dirk. Let’s just remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along to the things we’re mentioning here in real time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com. That’s just one L in the digital life, and go to page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of, while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios which you can check out at goinvo.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter, @dknemeyer, or e-mail me, firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s it for episode 126 of the Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.