Deceptive Patterns and Learned Helplessness
In 1967, Martin Seligman and his partner Steven Maier discovered the learned helplessness theory while studying animal behavior. Their research shed new light on trauma. The theory implies that people who have suffered repeated abuse or bad experiences eventually become helpless unless they make significant changes in their life. When such people find themselves in a similar situation, they are unable to change. The findings from this research and its possible implications piqued my interest and made me think about how this might affect our day-to-day behavior, our choices, and our future.
Learned helplessness can also occur as a result of poor UX design. When people experience repeated failures with a task or skill, they could learn to accept that it is beyond their ability to understand or to successfully. Imagine a user interface that presents the user with complex and uncontrollable situations. This could leave users feeling not only defeated but helpless.
For example, let’s say a user wanted to delete her account for a Web application. If account settings were hard to find and, after trying several possible locations where that functionality might be, the user still couldn’t find it, she might simply give up on deleting the account. She might feel that she has no way of achieving her desired action. Amazon provides a good example of how difficult it can be to delete an account. This sort of user experience could result in learned helplessness. This example demonstrates how deceptive design could affect users. As UX professionals, we should avoid subjecting users to such experiences.
The Impact of Deceptive Patterns on Habitual Users
A habitual user is someone who is addicted to using a product on a daily basis. This type of user depends on the product and its rewards. Some games use deceptive patterns that affect users psychologically and cultivate habitual users.
Another good example of a product that cultivates habitual users is Snapchat. In this application, a deceptive pattern occurs when a user loses a reward for missing a day and, thus, has to start over gaining rewards in its reward system. Users keep coming back every day to avoid ending their winning streak. But users sometimes forget why they started using the app in the first place and become more worried about not ending their winning streaks. This effect makes users become addicted to using the app. Some might argue that this is not a misleading pattern, but the truth is that it is. It’s a temporal dark pattern. While this application might seem to be harmless or even beneficial at first glance, over time, when the user sees how long his winning streak is, he’ll conclude that he never wants to miss a day. At this point, the product has become a daily habit and the user is heading for a far-off finish line.