The dark side of the moon
The dark side of the moon

The darkest side of service design

charley.pothecary
4 min readSep 10, 2021

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It’s tempting to imagine that all service design is driven by a power for good. The idea, you might imagine, is always to make life easier, bringing greater clarity and inclusivity, and reflecting the evolving needs of society.

Most of the multitudes of services we use every day may promise to make life better and easier, many do but many also end up failing in their promise — even sometimes on purpose.

The world can be a difficult enough place to make your way through, so why are services able to make it harder or more confusing for us?

Dark service patterns are interactions designed into a service to make you spend money, breed confusion, or to ultimately catch you out in one way or another.

Take the ‘free trial’ service approach. Most of us figure we will download a few books, watch a movie or two, or workout a few times before we walk away. Result! But, just like the slot machines, the House always wins.

To get the free stuff, we first must provide our payment details. Not a problem though, right? Sure, if you remember to cancel in time and if you can figure out how and where to actually cancel the trial. The reality is many of us forget or miss the deadline and, bang, we’ve paid and there is nothing we can do about it.

How can interactions that are designed to catch users out and prey specifically on users who are more likely to forget these things be acceptable?

Other examples include:

  • Pop-ups and hidden continue buttons that force users to look at so many other options (that surprise, surprise are all selling more things to you) before you can finish your interaction with a service. Booking a flight is often one of the worst examples of this.
  • Not being able to leave a service easily or you are only able to leave in a small window of time as otherwise, it will auto-renew
  • Anytime a service remembers to nudge you to upgrade or buy more of something but conveniently forgets to nudge or remind you if you are about to be charged extra for something. Many banks now have options to be notified if you are close to your overdraft but many services will try to hike up monthly fees without really letting you know.
  • All those deviously worded statements about privacy and marketing that have so many double negatives you aren’t sure if you have just said yes to monthly newsletters that you really don’t want.
  • Oh, and remember that whole not being able to check your credit score because it will affect your credit score — What the fuck was that and how was it allowed to go on for so long?

Many more examples of dark service patterns can be found at www.darkpatterns.org

Dark service patterns catch all of us out from time to time. Overlay any difficult life events, poor mental health, illness, language barriers, impairments, disability and just generally being a human being and you’ve got some very unforgiving services.

Dark service patterns lead to inaccessibility, anxiety, debt, frustration, and cognitive overload that ultimately preys on our capability as humans to remember or be able to navigate overly complex things.

This is all very immoral, how is it still allowed? Also, does it really lead to that much more money for service providers?

Services that are supportive and inclusive ultimately will win

Users will always rather interact with a supportive, inclusive, and kind service. Good customer service and trust in a service provider to not try and screw you over will always prevail. In the short term maybe these dark service patterns work for service providers but not in the long run.

The biggest issue is that the services that most use dark service patterns are often trying to target customers who are low on time and low on money specifically. For example, many supermarkets still don’t make it easy for customers to compare prices of products, they will often try to sell packaged products without showing the price per weight. This makes it really hard to work out whether it’s cheaper to buy loose items that are priced per weight or a packaged item that is priced per packet. Often you will also find a correlation between how cheap an airline is and how many dark service patterns they will utalise. This needs to change.

Good service design principles are widely used by service designers, why don’t we have minimum ethical service design principles that are enforced onto service providers by policy?

Clearly, just thinking that service providers will just do the right thing isn’t working.

Seen a dark service pattern you want to fix? Or want to help uphold further ethical and inclusive service design? Reach out to us at Inclusively.

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charley.pothecary

Making and improving things to enhance lives. Inclusive Service Designer and founder at @Inclusively_, also a @ServiceLabLDN organiser.