The psychological design tricks websites use to keep you hooked

Regulating technology.
Regulating technology.
Image: Reuters / Dario Ruvic
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This is mind control by design.

For years, companies have been using questionable user-interface design tactics to steer your behavior online. Broadly known as “dark UX,” these subtle interventions—colors of buttons, size of fonts, the layout of a page—manipulate users to do things they didn’t intend to do, such as subscribe to a service or buy a product, or prevent them from doing something they want to do, like cancel their account.

A new video on the popular YouTube series Nerdwritter outlines some dirty design tactics embedded in several popular websites and apps. On Amazon’s website for example, the so-called “roach motel” tactic prevents users from deleting their account. It does this by burying that option deep in the site’s architecture, leading the user down a confusing maze of drop-down menus, only to arrive at a dead end where you have to convince a customer-service person to delete it for you.

The seven-minute explainer highlights the work of dark-UX crusader Harry Brignull. Through his website Dark Patterns, the UK-based user-experience consultant encourages the public to educate themselves on these sly tactics and call out the companies who use them.

Included in Dark Pattern’s “Hall of Shame” are some very, very dirty tricks:

“Everything on the internet is fighting for your attention, but there’s a difference between those who build trust and loyalty and the ‘special offer’ you clicked that actually enrolled you in a monthly subscription or the social media network that ‘dark-patterned’ you in sharing data you didn’t even know it had,” explains Nerdwritter founder Evan Puschak, who narrates the video.

Puschak is alluding to the still-unfolding Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, which demonstrates how these seemingly friendly design systems can be used to undermine our freedoms.