Mobile App Design

The Rise of the “Dark Patterns” in App design

13th May 2013

App DevelopmentWhen we use apps, we like to think that they are designed with our best interests in mind. We assume that when the designers created the app, they were concentrating on making the best user experience possible for us and that they wanted us to share that we were using their app on its merits alone. It seems like a good way to do business, and an honest one. It’s the type of app development that we at Waracle push, and many other blogs online about app development will tell you the same.

After all, you should be thinking about the user first right? You want them to have a great experience so that they’ll share it with their friends and tell them to also use the app.

A good product, we’re told, will create its own viral marketing. There are multiple examples of this, from Angry Birds to Draw Something to Instagram. They all created great user experiences and beat out the competition to become legends in the mobile app world. This type of viral spread is sometimes quite slow though, at first at least, and can take a lot of marketing effort from the developer to generate enough traction to really get things moving.

And yet every other week we seem to be hearing about new app success stories through the viral market, so how is this possible?

Well, it could be that so called “dark patterns” are starting to creep into everyday app development.

What are dark patterns?

Well, describes them as:

“A Dark Pattern is a type of user interface that has been carefully crafted to trick users into doing things, such as buying insurance with their purchase or signing up for recurring bills.”

We’ve all felt their effects, with, for example, trials that require you to input your payment details and you have to actively opt-out of the subscription (we’re looking at you Netflix).

They are designs that are meant to trick and misdirect users into doing things that they don’t intend to but are beneficial for the business that’s created the design in the first place.

Now, dark patterns are created by those with intent to deceive, so what about creating accidental patterns?

Well, that comes under “UI anti-pattern”, which is a UI that hasn’t been purposely designed to misdirect the user, but through laziness, sloppiness or plain oversight, the user is much more likely to do something that can, say, vastly increase the social footprint of the app by accident.

How would this happen?

Well, many apps these days have a “connect with your contacts” or “invite your friends to use this app” feature, and most of them, when you use this, will let you choose which people you want to send invites to. But some do it the opposite way, where they’ll auto-select all of your contacts first and then you have to unselect the people you don’t want to invite. This can lead to many users inviting all 300 of their contacts to use an app, which can cause an explosion of users of an app in a very short amount of time, but many of these users will not become real active customers.

This spike and crash scenario is becoming more common, which perhaps points to these dark patterns slowly coming into use as developers try to find new ways to attract customers and encourage growth. Remember, growth is good, but too much too soon is going to cause a burn out rather than a proper establishment of a strong user base.

As app developers, it can be tricky to walk that line between wanting success but also wanting to not be a flash in the pan. Natural growth is the best way to make that work, and it may be more effort and more time, but it will be worth it on the other side.

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