Breaking bad habits thanks to dark patterns

Breaking bad habits thanks to dark patterns

Most digital products and services are optimised to generate as much revenue as possible. An app will only generate revenue for the creator for as long as you keep actively engaging with it. Therefore, one of the most important digital metrics is what’s called “user retention”. This is the percentage of users that return to the app in a specific timeframe.

While the calculations are not something I find particularly interesting, it is important to understand that the design for most Internet products and services is driven by this, among other factors. These are UX research topics that are continuously being refined and expanded upon.

Increased friction

To this end, I’ve been observing an annoying trend of increasing friction in all websites for the last few years. See here:

Dark patterns

If you use the Internet frequently, you may be accustomed to these dialogs that infest the web. Every website wants you to sign up for their newsletter, accept their cookies, and create an account with them.

Dark patterns

It is easy to conclude why the web is designed like this. It is in these companies’ best interests for you to create an account and always be logged in so they can:

  • Build an accurate profile of you to target you with tailored ads, making more likely for you to click on them.
  • Send you notifications and reminders to get back into the website.
  • Gamify your experience, giving you virtual trophies and achievements.

Improving your Internet browsing experience

As an aside: I can’t recommend “No, Thanks.” and “I don’t care about cookies” enough, they’re both excellent extensions created maintained by Daniel Kladnik, who believes the web should have fewer annoyances, pop-ups, dialogs, and modals.

Impulsive behaviour

After having read multiple books on the subjects of attention and effective work, I am fully convinced that being able to be mindful and pay attention to the things that matter is one of the most important skills in this age of Internet-connected attention-draining devices. Mindfulness improves many aspects of your life: From work to interpersonal relationships and even hobbies, because you will be more effective, and have more time to be able to enjoy your favourite activities outside work.

But it is quite clear that, while our time on this planet is quite limited on an individual level, companies will continue to aggressively fight each other for your attention.

My criteria for digital services or products

  • Do not allow the application to send me notifications unless it is justified. For example, my e-mail app, my bank, or other security applications should be able to send me notifications, but under no circumstances can these applications send me promotions or unsolicited messages. If this is the case, I will either revoke their notification permissions, or fully uninstall them. In particular, social apps are never allowed notifications except in the case of direct messages (no likes, no favourites, no reposts, no photo tags, nothing like that) and only if I use the app less than once every week or two weeks. I use Telegram daily, so Telegram has no notification permissions on the OS level, but I only use Signal a handful of times every month, so revoking notification permissions here would mean I would possibly miss messages from my contacts because checking Signal is not part of my routine.
  • Do not install the native smartphone app unless it is a benefit for me. In particular, if installing the application allows me to have increased security, such as two-factor authentication codes, or if I need to upload pictures taken with my phone’s camera, and so on.

Because the native app is not installed, it is often the case that I will tap a link on, say, my e-mail app, that would open the app, but opens a webview instead. In this webview, cookies are sometimes not preserved, and that’s when the trouble starts, because the website will ask me to install the app and/or sign in, which is particularly annoying when you want to simply read an article. It is even more annoying if you turn on two-factor authentication, as that’s an extra step you have to take. Often, after signing in, it will return you to the homepage instead of the article that you wanted to read, so you have to close the webview, and tap the link again to finally read the article… Do you see where I’m coming from? Friction. There’s a lot of friction on the modern web. However, there are ways you can leverage this to your advantage.

Why is this such a big deal?

If I had to condense the “Atomic Habits” book by James Clear as much as possible, it would go as follows:

“How to Create a Good Habit The 1st law (Cue): Make it obvious. The 2nd law (Craving): Make it attractive. The 3rd law (Response): Make it easy. The 4th law (Reward): Make it satisfying.”

With these laws in mind, let’s analyse a typical flow for interacting with one of these websites nowadays:

  • Law 1: Cue. Checks out, because the website will send you a message, either via smartphone push notifications or e-mail, in regards to someone replying to you, interacting with your content, or simply content posted by other users.
  • Law 2: Craving. Well, you know if you tap the link, you will be able to read what was mentioned, and possibly interact with other users, or read other content. All the content at your fingertips!
  • Law 4: Reward. This checks out too. Simply interacting with others, even negatively, for defending our ideas, is proven to have positive psychological effects. Occasionally, websites like Reddit or Hacker News use karma point systems that increase the social status on your website as other people like your comments and posts. Some sites go as far as giving you virtual trophies and achievements to gamify your experience further.

Did you notice I didn’t mention the third law? That is because all these websites have a serious shortcoming here. And this is by design: As the sites are optimised to gather as much of your data as possible, they’ll try to get you to sign up, give up your email address, your real name, perhaps your phone number, sometimes also ask for permission to read your contacts, as Twitter does. And this is exactly where you can break this perverse psychological manipulation. Habits will not form if they don’t align with the 4 laws, so you can go out of your way to make it as difficult as possible by using the methods I use, like not installing the smartphone apps, turning on two-factor authentication, and adding as much friction to the process as possible. Another good tip is to make use of something like SimpleLogin or FastMail masked addresses, such that you save these emails on your password manager, instead of remembering the username, and you make it even more difficult to log in by accident or out of habit.

In summary

The more these websites will continue to be designed for information gathering, the more vulnerable they are to added sign-in and sign-up friction, and the more you can leverage this to your advantage to break addictive habits.

Try it today, and let me know how it goes! Remember, the time you spend watching TikTok videos or engaging in pointless Twitter debates is time you never get back while the platforms profit.