Nope, Dark Patterns Never Work


The design community has been up in arms about LinkedIn’s deceptive interface practices for a while now. Recently, in an unexpected turn of events, LinkedIn was sued over it’s use of Dark Patterns and ordered to pay damages to it’s users. While this does represent progress in building a strong argument against Dark Patterns, there is still a lot of work that designers need to do, especially from the quantitative perspective.

A little while back, I wrote an article defending LinkedIn and their usage of Dark Patterns in their onboarding process. I did this primarily because, despite the fact that the design community was collectively up in arms over LinkedIn’s deceptive design decisions, I had yet to be presented with any evidence to prove that LinkedIn’s Dark Patterns would actually result in a net negative business impact. It was an unpopular stance to take, but I felt that somebody needed to do it. My call to action for the design community was to take a better, more calculated approach to the issue and come up with undeniable evidence that Dark Patterns were bad for business.

We Now Officially Have That Evidence

LinkedIn was just ordered to pay $13 Million in a lawsuit settlement over the very Dark Patterns that I discussed in my original article. I found out about this last Friday, when I received an email from the Federal Court involved in a case labeled “Perkins v. LinkedIn Corp.” When I read the email, I was shocked to find that LinkedIn would be paying damages to any user affected by the “Add Connections” Dark Patterns on their site, which apparently were implemented back in September of 2011.

The individual damages don’t amount to much, with an expected average payout of $10 per affected user. Had the prosecution proven that the Dark Patterns caused users mental anguish, that number would have been much higher, at $750. In this particular ruling, the court dismissed that provision. But to think that it was even a possibility is rather interesting. Businesses have been tying dollar amounts to User Experiences for decades, and for better or worse, it appears that the Justice System is rightfully following suit.

This Sets a New Precedent

I think the most important outcome of this ruling is that it sets a precedent, where users and now justice keepers are demonstrating the true value and impact of digital design in our daily lives. Previously, the possibility of legal action against a deceptive design would likely have been a footnote at best in a design review at LinkedIn (or, for that matter, any company in their space). But that’s all changing.

That said, one could very easily argue that the $13 Million payout that LinkedIn is about to make will simply be written off as a modest cost of business. A predictable hazard of aggressive user acquisition; something that was already part of the equation. In other words, LinkedIn likely made excessively more than $13 Million by utilizing Dark Patterns, apparently breaking the law, and thus aggressively acquiring users, than if they had elected to keep Dark Patterns out of their design and therefore acquire less users. I would absolutely agree in that case. All things considered, LinkedIn very likely still made a smart business decision here (when looking exclusively at user acquisition and resulting revenue, which are assumedly primary KPI’s for the company). But those days may be coming to an end. No matter how you look at it, this represents a new element of progress in the argument against Dark Patterns. Not only do users hate them, but in some cases, they’re illegal. And that comes with real, measurable consequences.

Don’t Stop Here

While we can definitely consider this a victory against the propagation of Dark Patterns, there is still a lot of work to be done, and my original call to action for the design community still exists. We need to demonstrate, from a replicable quantitative perspective, how Dark Patterns negatively affect businesses. It would be very easy for business leaders, especially in startups and small to medium size businesses, to dismiss the LinkedIn case as an isolated incident that would never happen to them. Furthermore, while the LinkedIn case does demonstrate that the law is taking a stance against Dark Patterns, it still doesn’t prove (from a practical, everyday standpoint) that Dark Patterns are inherently damaging.

We need to put the quantitative stops into place to prove that regardless of the business size, audience demographic, or product category, Dark Patterns can always be tied to a diminishing return. We need to show that the true risk of using Dark Patterns doesn’t lie within the law, but rather within the Dark Pattern itself. Dark Patterns may indeed be inherently negative design practices, but until we have the universally applicable data to back that up, we don’t have a perfect argument. So keep working. Keep tracking your designs and keep demonstrating how these decisions can affect the very metrics that businesses depend on.

I discuss this more on the UX & Growth Podcast