Dan Ariely, our brains and dark patterns


Photo by jepoirrier on Flickr

The other week I attended a private corporate event featuring author and researcher on behavioural economics Dan Ariely as the keynote speaker.

His talk revolved around our intuition, brain illusions and decision making when facing complicated situations [as a side note, the word complexity was used by the author many times to illustrate what I think are complicated decisions – when we face too much choice – but not complex decisions. For more on the distinction between both terms I recommend you check David Snowden work and his Cynefin framework]

Long story short, many times we tend to trust our intuition when we have no data to support a decision (or, I would add, choose not to “trust” what the data is telling us) but we must be aware that our mind plays tricks on us, and that the more complicated a decision is the more we will paralyze and actually take no decision at all (the “do nothing” syndrome).

Knowing this, a lot can be studied and designed around crafting choice architectures and deciding on defaults. The classic example, shared by Dan, is the difference between opt-in or opt-out models for organ donation: being a complicated decision for many of us (hence we tend to “do nothing” when asked what doctors should do with our organs once we pass away), countries that go for the opt-out model (check this box/fill this form if you do not want to donate your organs) have incredibly higher donation rates than countries to go for the opt-in model.

So companies or government agencies, in the case of the organ donation story, need to think about the choices given to customers/citizens (on websites forms, on service options, on store shelves, …), and how our brains work, carefully thinking about the set default choices. As I was thinking about this the following day, my favourite serendipity machine (Twitter) put this tweet by friend Luis Suarez on my path:

The tweet linked to a website devoted to “dark patterns”, defined as follows:  

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

Some examples are shared on that website including what is for me one of the worst cases: Ryanair.  

I’m currently working currently on the redesign and relaunch of a product website at work, and having tried throughout the entire planning and prototyping phase to “put myself into customers shoes”, thinking about the jobs they need to do [recommendation: check the jobs-to-be-done framework] and how our product communication via our website can help there, I now find myself reflecting about these dark patterns:  

  • as we increasingly know how our brain works, how much of that will be used by businesses to exploit our human “weaknesses” and trick us into buying things we don’t need or subscribe into services we do not want?
  • where do we draw the line between designing for humans (with user experience and usability in mind and helpful default choices) and designing to take advantage, for corporations alone to profit, from our human biases and our brain “imperfections”?

5 thoughts on “Dan Ariely, our brains and dark patterns

  1. Hi Ana, very interesting and thought provoking blog post that I could just probably sum it up to what, as of late, we seem to be lacking quite a bit, in the business world: ethics, morale and, above all, a work ethos where we strive for sustainable growth vs. that greedy approach of tricking your customers, just for the sake of the quick profit. I tell you, after watching that keynote session where you got the tweet from I will never look into Web sites again. It’s just like having a F2F course where the speaker helps you open up your eyes towards what’s just wrong in terms of “engaging” your customers and provide excellent customer service.

    I guess the challenge in the next few years is not necessarily how much enticing that overall digital customer experience would be like, but more along the lines of how honest, brave, ethical and, above all, empathic, you may well be about your clients’ needs & wants and act accordingly. I suspect that efforts like Dark Patterns are going to help us smarten up faster than they may have thought all along! 🙂

    • (it’s a good day when you comment on one of my blog posts 🙂 )

      It’s funny you mention how you felt after attending that keynote because it was more or less how I felt after checking that Dark Patterns website!

      Following Dan’s keynote I kept thinking more on the positive than on the negative outcomes of choice architectures and defaults but I when I saw that link I experience an Aha! moment, followed by a deep sense of distress.

      I totally agree with you on the remarks about ethics, morale and work ethos. And I know that some of us are fighting the good fight to make businesses more human (in all its greatness and goodness against greed and bad business practices)!

      • Thanks, Ana, for the heads up and for the follow-up. Yes, indeed, it’s one of those experiences that you know will change the way you see things, in this case, all Web related, in terms of paying attention to detail, which is what I think matters the most at the end of the day in how you provide that digital customer experience par to none and where excellence is the standard, but at the same time how it needs to happen in a sustainable growth fashion, because otherwise it would show how we may not have learned much after all 😦

        And, yes! It’s lots of GREAT fun fighting the good fight altogether! Glad you are on it, too! 😀

  2. Thanks Ana for posting this and to Luis for his comments. I always love the insights of Dan. Did you see his TEd speeches? Very interesting and as I have roots in scientific work i love to look behind the curtains to understand the why and how. It helps me managing the “complexity”.
    But at the end i am often shocked how easy we humans can be “managed” and “influenced”. And even if you know about some facts it is sometimes difficult acting inanother way.
    I try to use this knowledge to stay on the good side and happy to join you in that fight. “May the force be with you.”;-)

    • Hello Hans, thanks for the comment. I haven’t seen Dan’s videos on TED yet but colleagues were telling me that some of the stories he told on the event I attended were more or less the same.
      I’m glad you share my concerns and will stay on the good side (I wasn’t expecting anything else from you 🙂 ). Speak soon!

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