Dark Patterns: Govt Shouldn’t Just Regulate, It Must Also Educate & Empower Customers

Dark Patterns- Govt shouldn’t just regulate, it must also educate & empower customers

By Siddharth Subudhi

With the coming of the digital era, websites and mobile applications have rapidly evolved. Some of these changes are for the better, and some for the worse.

Persuasive user design has been a central tenet of these changes, nudging people to make choices they may not have made otherwise. Zomato, for example, has used persuasive design through different features. Some of these nudges which come to mind are how being provided cutlery is no longer a norm, but a choice for a consumer – thus reducing wastage significantly.

Do you also recall when an addition of a few rupees contributing towards some social organisation was default on the Zomato app? While there’s nothing wrong in giving to a social cause, it being a default addition essentially stole autonomy from a user to make their own decisions.

Speaking fairly, it isn’t difficult to deselect the default addition – but, what makes it manipulative is the guilt experienced with unselecting a small amount which may be used for the right reasons. There are essentially two problems here, the first is that it invokes guilt in the user rather than letting it be a happy choice for the user to contribute – and the second is that, it doesn’t let users decide where and what they want to give towards.

While many worse persuasive designs, or dark patterns come to mind, the Zomato example seemed apt to provide context some of us may relate to.

In a recent notification, the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) released a list of 13 practices that fall under the ambit of Dark Patterns, or Deceptive Design. The Zomato example is what is known as ‘Basket Sneaking’. In general, design practices have formed through an understanding of psychological principles that influence human decision making, in ways that can cater to user experience effectively and purposefully influence human behaviour in a way that protects user interests.

These principles found its theoretical roots in 1996 when B.C. Fogg coined the term ‘Captology’ which essentially refers to computers as a persuasive technology. While there’s nothing wrong with ethical persuasion in influencing consumer behaviour, the very same understanding of the human mind could just as well be used for manipulating people’s decision making processes that are unaligned to their best interests.

We can understand this by circling back to the Zomato example. To regulate potential manipulation, the Government of India’s initiative is rather well placed. But, something which comes to mind with the GoI seeking public comments on the draft guidelines is Less Government, More Governance – it may not be farfetched to say that education and empowerment, rather than regulation, should be the norms for consumer protection in the digital age.

It would be of significant interest for those making the decisions to frame the guidelines in a way it improves Manipulation Literacy amongst our masses. With an increase in a user’s ability to detect dark patterns, it will not only render manipulative design invalid but also allow a user to make consensual, informed choices – thereby simply showing citizens the path to make smarter choices online.

A central tenet to user design is to support people’s autonomy by default, meaning that the needs of people are considered from the start. Usually, dark patterns emerge when businesses feel the need to take control. Keeping these in check is certainly the right way forward for us.

While we may bring out strong guidelines banning dark patterns in user design, do we really think these persuasive design elements are not going to continue? I suppose we may see these patterns disappear from the bigger website and applications. But some reports such as the FIS Global Payments 2023 have predicted India’s e-commerce market to almost double by 2030.

With the market predicted to grow significantly, it’s going to open the door to more and more players – who need to compete with the bigwigs for a crumb in the pie. And, how they are going to do this is by not sitting back, but taking control of the situation. One of these ways would be to persuade users to make choices they may not make consciously. We haven’t eliminated ordinary scams with regulation, and we’re even less likely to eliminate online manipulation through regulation.

Users need information on persuasive intents and to consent to the persuasion for the tactic to be ethical. Real consumer education is possible, with the internet footprint growing every year in India. Empowering individuals to discern and resist manipulative practices can be a potent complement to regulatory efforts. Striking a balance between regulation, education, and ethical design principles will be essential to ensure a user-centric digital landscape that respects autonomy and encourages informed choices.

Ultimately, the collaborative efforts of regulators, businesses, and consumers will play a pivotal role in shaping the ethical contours of the digital realm in the years to come. Simply put, enact strong regulations and protect me for a day; teach me to identify and report, and you empower me for a lifetime.

This article first appeared in ET Government, https://government.economictimes.indiatimes.com/blog/dark-patterns-govt-shouldnt-just-regulate-it-must-also-educate-empower-customers/105859837