May 19, 2021

Introducing the Dark Patterns Tip Line

Stephanie Nguyen

Product designer and researcher, formerly at Consumer Reports.

Today, we’re thrilled to launch the Dark Patterns Tip Line, a website that allows consumers to share manipulative designs they encounter online.

Dark patterns are common and strikingly effective in websites and apps we use everyday but are sometimes hard to spot. For instance, a tax service could mislead people into paying for services advertised for free. Or an online education platform for kids could force parents through “a confusing hide-and-seek maze” in order to stop recurring charges. By secretly obtaining personal information and making us do things we don’t want to do, dark patterns can create a spectrum of harms from inconveniences like wasted time to serious harms like experienced discrimination. 

In April, I participated in the Federal Trade Commission’s Dark Pattern Workshop, on a panel that focused on how communities of color are adversely impacted by these tactics. Sometimes these manipulative design patterns could seem mundane — tricky language may sway someone into signing up for unwanted email spam or wasting a few minutes of someone’s day. However, for marginalized populations, especially those who may not speak English as a first language, some of these spam emails could be more manipulative to people into paying more for something they did not need to. 

This is why we created the the Dark Patterns Tip Line. The work aims to support and build from the existing dark patterns research, initiatives, and advocacy work already done in the field. This project also intends to advance conversations and efforts to mitigate manipulative design practices by: 

  1. Grounding work with human-centered perspectives. Perspectives of everyday people are missing from dense, legal, and wonky conversations about dark patterns — especially from overburdened, underserved and vulnerable populations. This project is powered by research with individuals who suffered dark pattern-instigated harms.
  2. Focusing on harms in place of tactics. Instead of focusing on dark pattern design tactics, this work focuses on how dark patterns can correlate with harms. We conducted interviews with people who have experienced dark patterns to understand, in their own words, what they experienced and how that impacted their daily lives. 
  3. Building a database of qualitative and quantitative insights. This website was created to serve as a crowdsourcing platform where people submit dark patterns they’ve encountered. The data collected from form submissions is supplemented with qualitative analysis via one-on-one interviews to better understand the human impact of these malicious tactics.
  4. Collaborating across teams, silos and expertise. The project was built with diverse governance in mind. We collaborated with an interdisciplinary group of expert academic researchers, designers, technologists, advocacy and policy members. 

 

What’s next? We need your help. Help us spread the word and submit a dark pattern here. The Dark Patterns Tip Line is open for submissions during a 3-week window from May 19 – June 9. After that period ends, we will curate and analyze the dark patterns sent in, and release a blog post explaining the top trends we saw. If you have questions, suggestions, or have an idea in mind to collaborate, please reach out.

We are grateful for the community that designed and built this. This project would not have been possible without dozens of people and organizations we’ve had the joy and privilege of working with on this initiative.

  • Rita Allen Foundation and the Civic Science Fellows for providing the support system and community for this initiative during my fellowship. 
  • Consumer Reports’ Digital Lab for incubating the project from pragmatic guidance to imaginative collaboration throughout this process. 
  • Ocupop, the creative agency of designers, engineers, and technologists who brought the website vision to life with precision, robustness, and ingenuity. 
  • Advisory organizations. Consumer Reports, Access Now, DarkPatterns.org, EFF, and PEN America who served as thoughtful advisory organizations throughout the process. 
  • Contributing team. Thank you to the brilliant team of academic researchers, industry practitioners, policymakers, advocacy members, and contributors who helped with the project ranging from user interviews to website copy to overall project strategy. Ordered alphabetically by first name, thank you so much to: Amira Dhalla, Arunesh Mathur, Ben Moskowitz, Dennis Jen, Harry Brignull, Jasmine McNealy, Jennifer Brody, Katie McInnis, Matt Bailey, Sage Cheng, and Shirin Mori.
  • The interview participants and people who dedicated time to sharing their experiences and helped shape this work through their passion to help reduce harms to other community members like them.

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