🔬 Research Summary by Hauke Sandhaus, a Ph.D. student in Information Science at Cornell Tech researching wicked design problems in Human-AI-Interaction to create an ethical future of automation.
[Original paper by Hauke Sandhaus]
Overview: User experience designers face increasing scrutiny and criticism for creating harmful technologies, leading to pushback against unethical design practices. While clear-cut harmful practices such as dark patterns have received attention, trends towards automation, personalization, and recommendation present more ambiguous ethical challenges. To address potential harm in these “gray” instances, we propose the concept of “bright patterns” – persuasive design solutions that prioritize user goals and well-being over their desires and business objectives.
Have you ever considered the subtle ways that user interfaces shape your online behavior? Many of us are aware of ‘dark patterns’ — manipulative design techniques that favor business objectives over user needs. Think of ‘roach motels,’ where users are easily drawn into a service but find it hard to get out.
But have you ever wondered about the other side of the coin? In my recent paper, “Promoting Bright Patterns,” I delve into the subtler, less explored, yet equally influential phenomenon: designs prioritizing user well-being and long-term goals. The digital world is not just a matter of black or white. Many services play a multifaceted role. Recommendation algorithms may guide us to enriching educational content or entertaining videos, but they might also entrap us in misinformation rabbit holes or foster addictive behaviors.
This is where ‘bright patterns’ come in — acting as a ‘band-aid’ to mitigate such negative impacts. A classic example would be screen time limits or usage reminders implemented by platforms like TikTok. Despite their business model that thrives on user engagement, these features are designed to keep users from overusing the service — a clear case of prioritizing users’ well-being over immediate business gains.
Defining Bright Patterns
The crux of our paper was to establish a working definition of ‘bright patterns’ based on several competing definitions of ‘dark patterns.’ Unlike their sinister cousins, bright patterns as an antonym are user interface elements designed to promote user behavior aligned with their genuine goals rather than their immediate desires or business objectives. While good design practices and the absence of dark patterns lay the foundation for ethical design, bright patterns leap further. They actively prioritize users’ well-being and long-term satisfaction, even if it means resisting short-term business gains.
Bright Patterns in Action
To make this concept more tangible, we gathered a range of examples where bright patterns have been implemented effectively. For instance, consider how certain platforms offer users screen time limits or usage reminders. At first glance, this may seem counterintuitive to a business model that thrives on user engagement. However, these features are designed to keep users from overusing the service — a clear example of bright patterns prioritizing users’ well-being over immediate business gains.
The Bright Patterns Repository
Recognizing the need for a dedicated space to discuss and visualize the concept of bright patterns, we established a website: brightpatterns.org. Here, designers, researchers, and anyone interested in ethical design can find a growing repository of bright pattern instances and join the conversation around this user-centric design approach.
Towards Ethical Design Practices
Our exploration into the world of bright patterns is just beginning. The goal is to advocate for ethical design practices in our increasingly digital lives. While the fight against dark patterns continues, our work shines a light on the other side — the potential of design to be a force for good, a beacon guiding us toward a user-centric digital landscape.
Between the lines
The rise of bright patterns in user interface design is an interesting development that begs the question: Why are companies implementing these patterns? Are they earnestly dedicated to ethical practices or simply trying to avoid regulatory scrutiny? Or could their products be so densely populated with dark patterns that bright patterns act as a necessary counterbalance?
Another aspect that piques interest is the somewhat paternalistic nature of these bright patterns. They seemingly protect users, but should designers have that responsibility? Or is it essential to allow users the freedom to navigate their own digital experiences?
Philosophical questions about bright pattern appropriateness show parallels to AI ethics discussions. A lot of the tuning to make AI models more ethical happens behind closed doors. Companies often don’t disclose these efforts, leading to claims of “woke” AI. Is it acceptable to prompt AI’s certain ways or even manipulate data and potentially favor certain ideologies under the guise of ethical adjustments?
Finally, we need to contemplate the role of design interventions. Are we overestimating their impact or underestimating their potential? As design plays a crucial role in user experience, these are important considerations moving forward.