Content warning: Racist language
This post discusses a term that’s commonly used to describe design patterns that cause problems for users. For the sake of clarity, I have used the full term once, at the beginning of this article.
There’s been an increasing number of conversations on my Twitter timeline, lately, about the term “dark patterns”.
The term was originally coined by Harry Brignull. He used it to describe tricks used in websites and apps to make people do things they didn't mean to - like subscribing to a service or signing up to receive marketing emails.
Since then, lots of us in the tech and UX industry have used the term to describe other kinds of bad design patterns, too. These include patterns that:
- are hard to use, like captchas or selects
- are confusing, like text inputs that provide a single line for users to type on top of, rather than a border that encloses the whole input area (thanks to Google for this one)
- are inaccessible for disabled people, or people using certain assistive technology
- exclude people, like gender form fields that don’t include options for transgender people
Why calling design patterns “dark” is racist
One of the common responses I’ve seen to people calling for a change in terminology is:
‘The word dark is a common adjective. Does that mean I can’t say things like “dark night”, “dark chocolate”, or “dark mode” anymore?!’
The answer to this is no, it doesn’t.
The problem with using the term “dark” in this context is that it’s used to mean “bad”. Intuit’s guide, Abolish racist language, explains the issue in more detail:
‘Language that puts a positive connotation on white/light and a negative or mysterious one on black/dark reinforces anti-Black and colorist stereotypes. We choose more direct language to get our point across. We only use these words as literal visual descriptors (such as dark mode), not value judgments.’
More descriptive terms are better in general
The fact that Black folks have told us that our language around bad patterns is harmful is enough of a reason to change it.
But it’s worth pointing out that it’s also not a particularly descriptive term.
In many of the discussions I’ve seen on this issue, people have suggested alternative catchall terms to describe patterns that cause problems, like “anti-pattern” or “bad-pattern”. But I think we can go one step further.
In the introduction to this post I shared 5 different ways that patterns can cause problems - and that’s not an exhaustive list.
Updating our language gives us an opportunity to be clearer about what we really mean, and have more nuanced discussions about sub-categories of bad patterns. For example, we could talk about:
- deceptive patterns (this is the option now favored by Harry Brignull, who coined the original term)
- inaccessible patterns
- confusing patterns
- discriminatory patterns
- exclusionary patterns
All of these terms provide more detail, and help people to understand more about the specific problem we’ve encountered with a solution.
A word on discussing harmful terminology
One of the reasons I wanted to write this post was to try and alleviate some of the pressure on my Black friends and colleagues to keep explaining this issue.
I hope that my explanation has been clear, and has convinced you to change your language when it comes to design patterns.
I’d also like to make another request. If someone from a marginalised group tells you that a term you’re using is racist, misogynistic, ableist, transphobic, homophobic, or causes any other type of harm to them: trust them.
If you don’t understand their reasons, carry out your own research into the origins of the term, rather than asking them to explain it to you. Listen, rather than becoming defensive.
Forcing people to qualify their lived experience of discrimination layers more harm on top of what they’re already experiencing. It’s painful, exhausting and unfair. And for those of us working in UX, it goes against one of the guiding principles our industry purports to stand for: inclusion.
Evolving towards kinder language
Learning to change our language can take time. Retiring terms we’re used to can feel jarring at first - especially if we didn’t spot that they were problematic in the first place.
We can give ourselves and each other grace when we make mistakes - as long as we remember that intent does not erase impact.
But contrary to the often-uttered outcry that “you can’t say anything anymore!”, I'm heartened and hopeful to see us consciously examining and evolving our language.
As the wise and wonderful Candi Williams said on Twitter:
“Words do not just have one fixed definition throughout time. The Oxford English Dictionary adds, removes and evolves the definition of words constantly.
Language is laden with connotation and words do not just hold a singular, binary meaning.
Our language shapes how we see the world. So, our language choices and considerations matter. Always.”
This post is largely just a summary of what I’ve learned from others. Special thanks go to:
- Candi Williams and Jack Garfinkel for sharing their insights, and calling my attention to the problem with our language around patterns
- Intuit for their wonderful guide on Abolishing racist language - which is an excellent resource for content designers and those of us working in UX to learn from
- Tatiana Mac, whose work has taught me a great deal about using inclusive language, and the role of design systems in perpetuating exclusion