Dark Patterns – More on “Free” software

Free Lemonade

Free Lemonade

At my lemonade stand I used to give the first glass away free and charge five dollars for the second glass. The refill contained the antidote.

— Emo Phillips

As a follow up to our last post on the high cost of free software, it’s probably worth discussing the related topic of dark patterns in the user interface of software products and web sites.  Essentially, dark patterns refer to the intentional use of user interface elements that are designed to you “trick” you into doing something you probably didn’t intend to do.

And why would a web site or software publisher want do this?  Most often, it’s to get you to click on a link for a paid advertisement.

For example, many “free” download sites serve ads that look like real download buttons, but actually download software that have nothing to do with what you were searching for.  Here’s a real screen shot showing what comes up for a search for “Adobe Reader”:

darkpattern4

Many users would logically just click on either of the “Free Download” buttons (which also use the label “Start Download”).  After all, all 3 buttons on the page look the same – same size and shape, same green color, a little download arrow on the left…  But one is different.  The two “Free Download” buttons take you to an advertiser’s site so that you can download their products, not Adobe Reader.  And the site hosting the “free” software gets paid a commission for this link – even though it didn’t do what you though it would.  Only if you look closely and find the link that says “Visit Site” are you directed to the read Adobe Reader download.

This example shows a web site doing this type of dark pattern interface, but it can also be embedded within the interface of a “free download” product. If you’re curious to see other examples, go to the Dark Patterns web site and browse the different examples that other users have submitted.  And if you need to download a product like Adobe Reader, it is always safest to go directly to the publisher’s web site to obtain the download.

Just another reminder why “free” sometimes isn’t free.  And why companies like ours only charge you for the lemonade, not the antidote…

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