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Dark Patterns in User Interface

Today, I want to talk to you about dark patterns, user interface patterns that - intentionally or not - mislead people who visit a website.

Last weekend, my wife and I took a long weekend trip to Florida. The airline we booked our flights through clearly understands the value of a good user interface. They use a soft, soothing color palette, thoughtful typography, fun yet intuitive icons, and big, easy-to-click buttons.

As you move deeper into the site, however, they start doing things that are confusing. For example, if you opt to look at flights only, after choosing your flights, they offer you the option to add a hotel. The big button says, “Continue without Hotel.”

The next screen offers you the option to book a car. The big button says, “Show me all Cars,” with small text below it to continue without booking one. In keeping with the previous pattern, the big button should be the option to skip the car booking page.

By creating a pattern and then breaking it, someone visiting the site can quite easily make a choice they didn’t intend to. At best, this is bad user interface design. At worst, it’s a deliberate attempt to mislead people who visit the site.

The site also positions up-sell options in big, bold typography with strong calls to action, while things like redeeming discounts and credits are obscured by small font sizes amid a sea of other options.

One of the more offensive aspects of the user interface, though, is this blatantly misleading piece of copy:

New government regulations require us to HIDE taxes in your fares. This is not consumer-friendly or in your best interest. It's wrong and you shouldn't stand for it. Starting January 24, 2012, fares are distorted.

This is a technically true statement, but here’s the reality: This airline has a history of advertising exceptionally low fares, and then as you move deeper into the process, they add all sorts of taxes and fees. By the time you realize this, you’re already pretty well invested.

In reality, they’re the ones hiding the fees by not publishing them until the end. It’s dishonest.

I’m sure these dark patterns benefit the airline in the short term. But ultimately, they erode brand trust. We won’t be doing business with this airline again.