A Lesson in Spotting Dark Design
I love to learn and teach when I have a chance. It seems like for this community this is a teachable moment.
We talk about Dark Patterns in web design often here. DarkPatterns.org, one of the go-to resources for exposing anti-design, has this to say about what Dark Patterns are:
Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to… If a company wants to trick you into doing something, they can take advantage of this by making a page look like it is saying one thing when it is in fact saying another.
From a UX perspective, we tend to focus on conversations surrounding blatant dark design and avoiding gray areas in work.
However, sometimes products and services we create offer the opportunities for others to use them in ways we didn’t intend. @quantumcloud’s original post here was a great example or dark design in a forum post.
Unfortunately for the purposes of this response, Quantumcloud’s original post has since been deleted. The original posting, however, was concerning their new “Slider Hero” WordPress plugin. The initial paragraph stated that it was a new product, hinting that it was yet-to-be-released. A link to the company’s page for the product followed, along with a description of the plugin features. The post finished by stating that it was a new product, and asked for developer feedback.
Tipping Their Hand
There were a few things that were fishy about the post:
- Quantumcloud was a new account here, with only a single comment response in the 1-month life of their account prior to posting this topic.
- The copy in the product description sounded suspiciously like it was copy and pasted from marketing material. It was teeming with happy words (such as exciting, interesting, useful) used to make a product seem more interesting.
- The word “developers” in the final paragraph hinted that this posting was copy and pasted from a similar post on another forum geared towards developers.
Posts like this are usually made on high-value, SEO sites geared towards tech professionals to gain both attention from the user base. Hopefully this elicits one or two positive comments, which then show highly in search results for the product. It’s an old trick, but if done right, it works.
Fortunately, this community has seen posts like this from time to time, and is very good at roundly ignoring them. The post never garnered a single response until @HAWK created this topic to discuss the potential usefulness of these types of posts, as it appeared just-borderline-enough to be a plausible call to help.
Calling Out Quantumcloud
I’ve been around here for a while, and have been using professional forums in varying capacities for years. It was pretty clear to me from the beginning that this was an advertisement masquerading as a call for help, meant to get the attention of the tech community of potential WordPress plugin users.
Before anyone could call Quantumcloud on their antics, they attempted to save the situation:
This set me off more than the original post, and I responded in an overly-heavy-handed manner.
Fiery? Absolutely. Offensive to Quantumcloud? Possibly.
Inaccurate? Absolutely not.
How Dark Patterns Damage a Business
Having been called out, Quantumcloud went into damage control mode, and for good reason. As an online business that relies on the trust of its web-savvy customers, the initial reasons why it posted (free advertising on a highly-SEO’d site for its target audience) would now work against it if it couldn’t salvage the situation.
The most often tactic when things go south like this is to claim good intentions and complain that you were treated unfairly, in one manner or another, by the person calling them out in one manner or another. The call out is then asked to be deleted, which removes the negative feedback agains the company, thus retaining their positive reputation.
That’s exactly what Quantumcloud did when it became clear the situation with their initial post could not be salvaged.
You’ll notice, however, that none of the links in my post were misleading. One lead to a page that tracks new domain registrations, which certainly doesn’t have a horse in the race. The others lead to Quantumcloud’s own portfolio and Behance profile. It’s hard to see how content they created is misleading, unless, of course, they were the ones doing the misleading.
The Last Gasp
My usual response to this thinking would be something along the lines of “If you want professional UX feedback, hire a UX professional. We do not work for free. This community is not your free work force at your leisure when you need us, and to ignore when you’re done.” Quantumcloud lists 22 employees on LinkedIn, and not a single one is a UX professional. It’s clear UX isn’t a priority for them.
It was already pretty apparent that this likely wasn’t a MVP (minimum viable product), but a fully-functional product that’s been released to the general public and marketed hard. Fortunately, an easy route to finding out how ready for primetime a product like this might be is to check how hard it’s been marketed.
Unsurprisingly, it’s been marketed pretty hard.
Note: I use screenshots below because I don’t want to give Quantumcloud any additional free advertising, but I can happily provide links to these pages if requested.
Slider Hero was advertised on Quantumcloud’s Twitter account…
…on their Facebook page a day before creating your post here…
…it’s been posted for sale on Code Canyon…
…it’s their featured them on their Theme Forrest page…
…and, of course, it’s available on WordPress.
I stopped there. I’ve seen all I need to see - this is no MVP.
Interestingly over on WordPress.com, Slider Hero has only four total ratings, (all 5 stars).
Three of those ratings come from accounts created within the last four months and have reviewed only a single product - Slider Hero - and have no other activity.
This, of course, smells of sham accounts created ahead of time to boost a plugin’s ratings through review manipulation.
In fairness to Quantumcloud, I couldn’t find evidence of similar vote manipulation occurring on other plugins they have available on WordPress. I’ll leave it to the reader whether or not to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Quantumcloud’s Likely Next Steps
Quantumcloud’s playbook from here, as far as UXMastery is concerned, is pretty apparent. They will take one of three courses:
- Claim a misunderstanding and attempt more damage control.
- Bluster and angrily deny the claims above, possibly threatening legal action against either me, the site, or both, which will never be followed through on.
- Silently admit defeat by deleting their previous posts - and possibly account - from these forums.
Option 1 is unlikely, given the evidence posted here against them, and will be countered with more research on my end if attempted. Option 2 is more likely, but results in further bad publicity. Option 3 is, strategically, the best route, though it will undoubtedly result in negative feedback on Slide Hero and Quantumcloud showing up relatively early in search engine results.
More often than not, in my experience, companies caught in these situations take routes 1 or 2, though I’m hoping personally they’re exit the high road by route 3.
The Lesson: Always Critically Evaluate Content for Dark Patterns, Even on Trusted Sites
Quantumcloud has apparently tried very hard to dupe us. They have a vast social media footprint, and absolutely know what they’re doing when it comes to marketing WordPress plugins.
Given all of the evidence agains them, we can only be left with the assumption that Quantumcloud’s post here was exactly what it seemed - a thinly-veiled advertisement that was part of a much wider project launch.
I’m ecstatic that @HAWK caught this post and brought it to the attention of the users, as it provides a very good teaching moment for the community. In an era where we gather the information that encompasses our digital life through many channels and the President of the United States routinely accuses established and respected news sources of fake news, critically evaluating what we read imperative to uncovering the truth.
Wrapping it Up
Even on trusted sites such as this, there are those who would seek to use the trust that site has built with us to serve their own agenda.
Although this relatively innocuous post from a small web development firm on the other side of the world is far less impactful than Russian social media ads used to sway the US elections, the concept of violating user trust is the same. It is absolutely a dark design pattern, and we as a UX community should treat these posts as such.
If nothing else, Quantumcloud has provided us with an excellent case study in why these types of dark patterns and posts - and these types of accounts - have no useful place, and should be banned.