Dark Patterns and Trust

This article was originally posted on colleenl.in.

There are honest and dishonest marketing techniques, and some that are grey. These grey techniques, dark patterns, are moves that aren’t technically illegal, but make people feel cheated, or exposed. These things aren’t technically wrong, but they are not things the user would want, and should be avoided by businesses wanting to keep customers around for the long haul.

The video above is form Ally Bank (formerly GMAC, interestingly enough), and they recently ran a round of ads about customers feeling cheated by their banks. Like the kid in the video, when you find out you’re not getting what you expect, you feel cheated. Especially if you feel like they’ve taken advantage of your lack of knowledge, or inexperience.

Utilizing grey techniques, dark patterns of interaction, may help companies in the short term gain customers, information, or other crucial tools for startups (YAY EMAIL LIST!) but they don’t bode well for the long term for several reasons.

It matters how the customer feels.

True, some people blindly input their mother’s maiden name and date of birth into every social network that asks. You may join a new service bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready for a good experience, but suddenly find out that:

  • your Facebook timeline is getting spammed by every like and upload (hi Viddy!)
  • everyone in your phone, including former professors and supervisors, has received a text message or email personally inviting them to join something you don’t even know if you like yet (hi Highlight!)
  • you’ve subscribed to a print magazine because your experience with their online journalism has been good, but then get a hundred emails from sponsors promising eMBAs and cheap business training (HI FAST COMPANY, TYVM!)

Users remember these insults to their trust. And yes, people still use Facebook, the most notorious privacy abuser, but it’s just not  as profitable as it could have been. Their company culture was not founded on trust and support for their customer.

Most users are aware that somewhere there may have been fine print that implied these actions are authorized, but that just makes users feel like a world-class schmo who’s been gypped. Worse, they feel like a schmo who’s been gypped and it’s THEIR OWN FAULT. Nobody likes the guy who makes them feel like an idiot.

Customers don’t forget how it feels.

I deleted Highlight after I heard from my professor (and father and mother and aunt) for a few reasons:

  • I knew the app would “invite my friends”, but felt I hadn’t been adequately informed that my address book would be instantly scraped and utilized immediately without an option to filter the list and modify the message
  • I had no idea the app would immediately spam my address book with a shockingly well-crafted “personal request” that they join an app I had just installed and hadn’t even used yet (how could it be so wonderful I’m begging my mom to join in the first five minutes?)
  • the nebulous benefit the app offered < than the feeling of being ripped off in the first minute of use
  • the app made me feel like a gullible schmo

I’ve found recently that I’m not missing a lot by not using the app. and that their purple cow is really kind of a greyish lavender, different, but not exceptional, and I will never join again because DUH – they made me feel like a schmo, and burn me once shame on you, but burn me twice…

This is one of the reasons as a user why I was upset when Facebook bought Instagram — I loved IG, and had built a level of trust with the app, but then it got bought by *The* Company You Can’t Trust, which I assume will probably ruin it. As it stands you won’t get me to ever enter my credit card information into Facebook, as long as it remains the same company. I’ve been burned, and I try not to let it happen again.

It’s a small world, after all.

No single email blast, customer-gathering-move, or information gathering technique should ever damage the trust of a user or customer for your company. The web makes the world very small, and people share everything, including their dislike for a company. Companies cannot afford to abuse their customers in the internet age — it doesn’t work for the company in the long term.

Build their trust

Every interaction with your brand where customers have to make obvious decisions about how much to trust you will erode their trust simply by making them ask the question. If they keep having to ask how much they trust you without “proof”, soon they won’t.

Figure out what the “trust points” in the interaction or process are (ex: I don’t want some app talking directly to my mom, but I don’t mind if it contacts my coworkers) and build negotiations around those points. For example:

  • Allow customers to clearly opt out of trust points – this builds trust. Most people will do it anyway and trust you because you allowed them an out.
  • People like to be asked, and often give permission.
  • Allow customers to craft messages they will send.
  • Remove all/nothing choices
  • Help the customer make informed decisions about their information

It matters, if your company plans to be around in the long term, that customers trust you.

More reading:

  • The Book of Business Awesome / The Book of Business UnAwesome by Scott Stratten
  • Elliot Jay Stocks’ recent post on the topic of PayPal’s abuse of his company
  • the Dark Patterns Wiki, which covers user interfaces designed to trick people, including Bait and Switch, Disguised Ads, Friend Spam and Hidden Costs…
  • DeConick, J. B. (2010). The effect of organizational justice, perceived organizational support, and perceived supervisor support on marketing employees’ level of trust. Journal of Business Research, 63, 1349-1355.
  • Foddy, M., Platow, M.J., & Yamagishi, T. (2009). Group-based trust in strangers: The role of stereotypes and expectations. Psychological Science, 20, 419-422.