20 May 2011

...shining a light on Dark Patterns

Dark Patterns, if you're unfamiliar with the term, are anti-usability practices which harness UI design in a purposefully unfriendly way to trick and coerce web users into doing things they don't want to. For example, hiding marketing opt-out checkboxes behind double-speak, or subscription services which are simple to sign up for, but difficult to cancel. These manipulative practices are tarred and feathered in enlightening detail at DarkPatterns.org, thanks to User Experience Designer Harry Brignull. He's behind the movement and is helping consumers, designers and the like get empowered with case study evidence. Big companies who should - and DO - know better, are petting, smoking and bombing in the deep end of the pool and Harry's got the whistle.

At this point, I'd like to thank Harry for his skillz and insight which help write this piece. I'd also like to warn you, dear reader, that this is a less pithy post than usual, so you may want to take this opportunity to make yourself a nice cup of tea or perhaps some squash, before settling down. And, taking the advice of my old English teacher, I'll try not to be flippant.

When Dark Patterns occur in an online interface, they're relatively easy to map due to their outward facing nature; anyone with a web browser has the opportunity to experience the same issue. Dark Pattern practices can also rear their ugly head in emails. But due to the individually tailored nature of delivery to users, there are variables which cannot be assumed to be universal: someone who receives a newsletter may have opted out of certain alert services; servers may delay the receipt of an email; pertinent images may not be displayed or blocked, and so on. Emails are, in essence, a two way conversation. However, when cynical themes reveal themselves within the contents of an email, and if one can suppose are part of a blanket mailshot, it's worth flagging up these dubious activities, documenting them, and placing them on the naughty step.

Hands up who uses gas or electricity? That's nearly the whole room. Hands up who has EDF Energy as their utility supplier? Okay, so a few of you may feel my pain. Let me explain...

I'm an EDF Energy customer who chooses to receive paper bills through the post. I can keep track of them easier this way, making sure I'm being billed the correct amount whilst having a tangible reminder in my hand - they are 'pushed' to me. I like the simplicity. It's convenient. But EDF have different ideas. They want to 'pull' my bills, that is, for me to access them online - you know, 'paperless billing'.

So, as part of their drive to make the billing of their services more 'flexible', EDF offered online account management, sending an email to me as a customer already taking part in their online self meter-reading scheme. (With this scheme, the customer receives an email alerting them it's time to login using their unique energy account number to submit a meter reading). The email outlines the perceived benefits of paperless billing opposed to traditional paper bills and encourages the customer - or 'user' - to take up the offer.

Viewing the email in closer detail, it's found that the user has been automatically signed-up for paperless billing without being asked, with a prominent CTA (call to action) inviting the user to click through and register, thus completing the process. It's pledged that your account will be reverted back to its original state - paper billing - if you don't register by the given cutoff point 12 days later (15th March).

Of course you don't have to click and register, but whether you do something or do nothing, the onus is placed on the user; even by doing nothing, you still do something. As long as the user understands these rules of engagement, it's possible to refrain from any online account activity with EDF until that 'safe' cutoff date. But the forced positive is a sneaky way of hiding account conversion behind a smokescreen of convenience, using a similar technique to the Forced Continuity principal. Not wanting to be at the end of a possible Faraway Bill, something which can arise with pull notifications, I choose not to respond to the email.

I received a follow up email from EDF eight days later, 11th March - three days before the cutoff point when my account resumes normal service, and this is when things get interesting. (Remember, I am a paper billing customer who has chosen to not click through, login, or sign up, purposefully to avoid automatically having my account switched to a service I never requested). I'm being alerted that my bill is ready to view online, with a CTA link to take me there. The language used is suggestively very different than before; I'm now invited to 'login' to access my bill online, rather than the invitation to 'sign up' previously received.

Employing the Bait and Switch Dark Pattern and elements of Misdirection, there is nothing in this email acknowledging the aforementioned consequence of logging in - automatically accepting online account management and forfeiting your paper bills. The email's tone is friendly and inviting, again using convenience to coerce the user into clicking through. But the email also preys on the user's fear of consequence for not paying a bill. At this point in the communication, EDF will likely experience a spike in their paper-to-online billing conversion rate, a result of customers, such as myself, following the instruction of the email and unwittingly accepting the automatic sign up to paperless billing.

It's in EDF's interest to move customers to online billing. Paper bills are expensive to produce, and they'll have heavily invested budget and resources into their online account management tool. So it's hardly surprising they engage in such activities, taking advantage of habitual responses to interface conventions internet users have grown to trust.

I must admit, there's also an environmental issue in play here, and online billing goes a little way to help save resources. I can't ignore this. But one gets the feeling that the initiative is small potatoes baking in a multi-national energy supplier's furnace, adding brand value in a wider, more cynical agenda.

So where does this leave me? I didn't respond to the email. Over six weeks passed and I hadn't realised I'd not received my bill in the post. Cue phone call to EDF. A nice chap on the line told me I had been signed up for paperless billing. I explained that I hadn't requested this at all and was worried about the consequence of a payment which was well overdue. Please can I just have a bill posted to me like normal?

"Yes, no problem. I'll set you back up with paper billing now, you'll get your bill next week."

I feel completely manipulated.

I start writing this blog entry.