Are Casinos The Best Example of Dark Patterns At Work?

The other day, I was watching one of Louis Theroux’s old documentaries, called Gambling in Las Vegas. Theroux has tackled grittier topics throughout his career, but nevertheless, seeing people in the throes of a gambling addiction – a retired doctor claims she’s spent over $7 million in 10 years at the Las Vegas Hilton casino – isn’t easy viewing.

But the thing that interested me the most was the insight into how Vegas casinos (well, casinos anywhere) are specifically designed to keep people interacting with them as much as possible – even when it’s not in the customer’s interest.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the definition of ‘dark patterns’ in UX is eerily similar.

Described by darkpatterns.org as “tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to”, the concept of ‘dark UX’ has been gaining more and more attention recently. These patterns can range from the ‘mundane but irritating’ – like pop-up notifications – all the way to dangerous, such as requiring credit card details when signing up to a “free” trial.

So… what has this got to do with casinos?

In the same way that dark patterns aren’t there by accident – they’re a part of an interface that has been consciously designed – nothing in a casino is left to chance.

There are two main styles when it comes to the design of casinos: the “playground design” – featuring luxurious and decadent décor – and the “gaming design”, where the buildings have low ceilings, little natural light and gambling machines act as set-pieces. But whichever type of casino you’re visiting, everything you see and encounter has been designed specifically to keep customers (users) playing – and therefore, spending – for as long as possible.

Viva Las Vegas?

For example, if there are no clocks on the walls, this is because the ‘house’ doesn’t want people to realise that they’ve been there for five hours (a little outdated now given we all have smartphones in our pockets). Smoking is allowed in casinos, so visitors don’t have to head outside to light up and get tempted away by a competitor. And, because gambling for long stretches of time can be quite taxing, soothing music can often be heard playing in the background.

As with dark patterns in user interfaces, almost none of this is designed with the user’s best interest at the heart. In fact, the 13 principles behind “gaming design” casinos were based on an analysis of the design elements common in successful casinos – ‘successful’, in this case, means profitable… which is often at the expense of the patrons. Louis Theroux phrases it best when he says, “This place wasn’t built on winners.”

Quoted in a press release for the UXUK Awards, John Goodall (one of our Senior Consultants), pointed out that “most of us have come across websites that have tricked us into buying something or signing up for something, just by the way the interaction has been designed” – as it turns out, most of us have probably come across some dark patterns offline, too.

Bunnyfoot is a proud sponsor of this year’s UXUK Awards. For the first time ever, they are presenting a ‘Dark UX’ Award to call out organisations using design to put their own interests above those of their customers. Vote for your choice here.

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We are psychologists, interaction and design experts, researchers, usability specialists. We cover Web, software, mobile, print, service design and more.
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