Click here for stuff you don't want

04 Apr 14 10:22AM EST
Post by Karina Bray  Karina Bray Google Plus
The other day, after getting a ‘reminder’ from LinkedIn that I still hadn’t responded to a friend’s invitation to, well, link in, I sent her an email apologising and said I didn’t have a LinkedIn account.

A few minutes later she walked over (yep, I actually emailed someone sitting a mere five desks away) and explained she hadn’t meant to send out any invitations – she had entered her email address when updating her LinkedIn profile, without realising she was allowing it access to the address of everyone in her mailbox.

Hundreds of contacts from Great Aunt Myrtle, to her child’s former soccer team mates’ mums from six years ago were invited to link up. It was embarrassing. Really embarrassing. And she spent a lot of time responding to people like me apologising for not linking in and to Great Aunt Myrtle who worried a lot and didn’t understand what LinkedIn was.

Embarrassing is one thing, professionally disastrous is another. Overhearing our conversation, someone chimed in with a tale of a doctor she knows who was reported to the medical board for professional misconduct when his LinkedIn account sent out invitations to patients on his contacts list, breaching confidentiality.

It turns out it’s a thing. Googling ‘Linkedin spam’, for want of a better description (there is actually another spam issue related to LinkedIn), there were all sorts of stories of people with similar experiences, including news of a class action against LinkedIn being launched in the US. And it all boiled down to one thing: a poorly worded – some would say misleading – user interface that has tricked many a user into allowing LinkedIn to access mail contacts.

There’s been a term invented for website user interfaces designed to trick people – dark patterns. While some user interfaces are just badly designed, poorly worded or difficult to understand, dark patterns are deliberate strategies employed to trick people into signing up for subscriptions, insurance and other things they don’t want, divulge private information, go to websites they didn’t want to and more.

A classic example is online airline ticket sales, which automatically include a whole bunch of products and services you don’t necessarily want, such as a baggage allowance or insurance – often by using pre-ticked tick boxes buried somewhere on the page. This tactic has been causing such a problem in Europe that a ban is being phased in for all retail websites, and a cooling off period of 14 days applied for people who suddenly realise they’re paying for something they didn’t expect.

Ads disguised as content are another trick – the user clicks on an ad on a news site, for example, thinking it’s related news rather than an ad. News sites get revenue from advertisers, but advertisers won’t advertise if they don’t get any traffic, so it’s in the interests of the news site to encourage click throughs.

There are many such examples and stories out there in cyberland, but we’d like to hear your stories.

Have you come across a badly worded or laid out website user interface that tricked you into doing something you didn’t want to?


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