A man in a black hooded sweatshirt in a dark environment. Image by George Hodan, used under a Creative Commons license. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/view-image.php?image=44607

Dark Patterns in Social Media: A Case Study from Quantumcloud’s Posts on UXMastery.com

Dark Patterns: Explanation and Today’s Example

I written before about dark patterns and other UX niches, but don’t often have a reason to share my practical experience.  That changed today with an illuminating encounter on UXMastery.com’s community that taught a valuable lesson on how dark pattern practitioners manipulate our decisions and opinions.

If you’re not familiar with dark patterns, check out DarkPatterns.org, one of the go-to resources for exposing anti-design.  They have this to say about what Dark Patterns are:

Dark Patterns are tricks used in websites and apps that make you buy or sign up for things that you didn’t mean to…. If a company wants to trick you into doing something, they can take advantage of this by making a page look like it is saying one thing when it is in fact saying another.

From a UX perspective, we tend to focus on conversations surrounding blatant dark design and avoiding gray areas in work.

However, sometimes products and services we create offer the opportunities for others to use them in ways we didn’t intend, especially when they generate trust in our user base that others may violate through their own, user-provided content.

Recently, I ran into a post on UXMastery.com from a company called Quantumcloud, who creates websites and WordPress plugins out of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The post was a great example of how companies manipulate our users’ hard-earned trust to advance their own agendas, and (as we’ll see at the end of the article) echoes similar tactics used by Russian social media trolls used to sway the US elections.

The Setup

Unfortunately for the purposes of this response, Quantumcloud’s original post has since been deleted. The original posting, however, was concerning their new “Slider Hero” WordPress plugin. The initial paragraph stated that it was a new product, hinting that it was yet-to-be-released. A link to the company’s page for the product followed, along with a description of the plugin features. The post finished by stating that it was a new product, and asked for *developer* feedback.

Tipping Their Hand

There were a few things that were fishy about the post:

  • Quantumcloud was a new account on the site, with only a single comment response in the 1-month life of their account prior to posting this topic.
  • The copy in the product description sounded suspiciously like it was copy and pasted from marketing material. It was teeming with happy words (such as exciting, interesting, useful) used to make a product seem more interesting.
  • The word “developers” in the final paragraph hinted that this posting was copy and pasted from a similar post on another forum geared towards developers rather than UX professionals.

Posts like this advertising plugins, pages, or services are usually made on high-value, highly-SEO’d sites geared towards tech professionals to gain both attention from the user base. Hopefully this elicits one or two positive comments, which then show highly in search results for the product. It’s an old trick, but if done right, it works.

Fortunately, the wonderful community at UX Mastery has seen posts like this from time to time, and is very good at roundly ignoring them. The post never garnered a single response until the site’s wonderful admin,  @HAWK, created this topic to discuss the potential usefulness of these types of posts, as it appeared just-borderline-enough to be a plausible call to help.

Calling Out Quantumcloud

I’ve been around UX Mastery’s community for a while, and have been using professional forums in varying capacities for years. It was pretty clear to me from the beginning that this was an advertisement masquerading as a call for help, meant to get the attention of the tech community of potential WordPress plugin users.

Before anyone could call Quantumcloud on their antics, they attempted to save the situation.  Their response to the initial question of whether these types of posts should be allowed was apologetic, stating

I am sorry but if there was any other way I should have done it, please let me know. Should I create another setup without Buy now links?

I, truly am seeking professional feedback here.

Thanks

This blatant attempt at damage control (written in rather poor English) set me off more than anything else, and I responded in an overly-heavy-handed manner not typical of my usual UXMastery posts or professional conduct.

Hey @quantumcloud, how about investing in a community before posting thinly-veiled advertisements? This is pretty blatant self-promotion in my opinion, and absolutely violates the “If you sign up and post links to your own work or site immediately, that’s not cool” rule.

I love that users who are invested in the community and here to get and give feedback. They should absolutely feel comfortable sharing their work here.

It’s pretty clear that’s not you.

You’ve been around here for less than a month, have two post replies (including the one above me), and the only topic you’ve posted is advertising your own work. You’ve spent a whopping 9 minutes here to boot. Even your product domain is barely a month old.

Additionally, your company goes back to 2002 and has a fairly expansive portfolio, so I can’t imagine you’re at all interested in genuine feedback.

A few pieces of advice for you:

  • Don’t take us for fools. We can spot an advertisement when we see one.
  • If you want professional UX feedback for your professional projects, go out and hire one. You’re obviously very comfortable with freelance work, so it shouldn’t be a problem for you.
  • If you want feedback from a community, invest in that community before asking for help. Spend more than 10 minutes there before shilling your product.

If it were up to me, I’d be polishing up the ol’ banhammer for you.

Sorry, @HAWK – I know this post is a fiery. I’m simply passionate about this community and the people that make it great. If @quantumcloud is willing to put time and effort into building relationships here and participating in the process of getting and giving feedback, I’m happy to have him. Perhaps we need a minimum “like” score or post/reply count before being allowed to post external links?

Fiery? Absolutely. Offensive to Quantumcloud? Almost assuredly.

But inaccurate? Absolutely not.

How Dark Patterns Damage a Business

Having been called out, Quantumcloud went into damage control mode, and for good reason. As an online business that relies on the trust of its web-savvy customers, the initial reasons why it posted (free advertising on a highly-SEO’d site likely to be viewed by its target audience and show up highly in search results) would now work against it if it couldn’t salvage the situation.

The most common tactic when things go south like this is to claim good intentions and complain that you were treated unfairly, in one manner or another, by the person calling them out in one manner or another. The call out is then asked to be deleted, which removes the negative feedback against the company, thus retaining their positive reputation.

That’s exactly what Quantumcloud did when it became clear the situation with their initial post could not be salvaged.  The quickly moved to have my comment censored, saying

I think the links should be deleted from @dougcollins post. I posted a single link to the live demo only (obviously a new domain expressly for the demo purpose only) – not to our main company website or even the product landing page. @dougcollins’ post contains multiple links to our main website which can be misleading people.

You’ll notice, however, that none of the links in my post were misleading. One lead to a page that tracks new domain registrations, which certainly doesn’t have a horse in the race. The others lead to Quantumcloud’s own portfolio and Behance profile. It’s hard to see how content they created is misleading, unless, of course, they were the ones doing the misleading.

The Last Gasp

They continued damage control in the same post, stating,

My timing was bad and I recognize that. But I needed feedback now – when the MVP is ready, to decide whether it is worth spending more time and effort on it. Not after 1 month. My thought process was as simple as that. Hope you can understand.

My usual response to this thinking would be something along the lines of “If you want professional UX feedback, hire a UX professional. We do not work for free. This community is not your free work force at your leisure when you need us, and to ignore when you’re done.”

Quantumcloud lists 22 employees on LinkedIn, and not a single one is a UX professional. It’s clear UX isn’t a priority for them.

It was already pretty apparent that this likely wasn’t a MVP (minimum viable product), but a fully-functional product that’s been released to the general public and marketed hard. Fortunately, an easy route to finding out how ready for primetime a product like this might be is to check how hard it’s been marketed.

Unsurprisingly, it’s been marketed pretty hard.

Note: I use screenshots below because I don’t want to give Quantumcloud any additional free advertising, but I can happily provide links to these pages if requested.

Slider Hero was advertised on Quantumcloud’s Twitter account…

Quantum cloud's Twitter post advertising Super Slider was the first key we might be looking at a dark pattern.
Quantum cloud’s Twitter post advertising Super Slider was the first key we might be looking at a dark pattern.

…on their Facebook page a day **before** creating their post on UXMastery…

Quantum cloud's Facebook post advertising Super Slider.
Quantum cloud’s Facebook post advertising Super Slider.

…it’s been posted for sale on Code Canyon…

Quantumcloud's Slider Hero for sale on CodeCanyon.com
Quantumcloud’s Slider Hero for sale on CodeCanyon.com

..it’s their featured them on their Theme Forrest page…

Slider Hero as Quantumcloud's featured plugin on ThemeForrest.
Slider Hero as Quantumcloud’s featured plugin on ThemeForrest.

..and, of course, it’s available on WordPress.

Slider Hero's page on WordPress.com, showing four 5-star reviews.
Slider Hero’s page on WordPress.com, showing four 5-star reviews.

I stopped there. I’ve seen all I need to see – this is no MVP.  This is a fully-functional, polished product Quantumcloud sought to advertise through their posting on UXMastery.com, amongst other places.

Interestingly over on WordPress.com, Slider Hero has only four total ratings, (all 5 stars).

Slider Hero's page on WordPress.com, showing four 5-star reviews.
Slider Hero’s page on WordPress.com, showing four 5-star reviews.

Three of those ratings come from accounts created within the last four months and have reviewed only a single product – Slider Hero – and have no other activity.

One reviewer of Slider Hero. One reviewer of Slider Hero. One reviewer of Slider Hero.

This, of course, smells of sham accounts created ahead of time to boost a plugin’s ratings through review manipulation.

In fairness to Quantumcloud, I couldn’t find evidence of similar vote manipulation occurring on other plugins they have available on WordPress. I’ll leave it to the reader whether or not to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The Lesson: Always Critically Evaluate Content for Dark Patterns, Even on Trusted Sites

Quantumcloud has apparently tried very hard to dupe us. They have a vast social media footprint, and absolutely know what they’re doing when it comes to marketing WordPress plugins.

Given all of the evidence against them, we can only be left with the assumption that Quantumcloud’s post here was exactly what it seemed – a thinly-veiled, dark pattern advertisement that was part of a much wider project launch.

I’m ecstatic that @HAWK caught this post and brought it to the attention of the UXMastery users, as it provides a very good teaching moment for the community. In an era where we gather the information that encompasses our digital life through many channels and the President of the United States routinely accuses established and respected news sources of fake news, critically evaluating what we read imperative to uncovering the truth.

Wrapping it Up

Even on trusted sites such as this, there are those who would seek to use the trust that site has built with us to serve their own agenda.  We saw this on an enormous scale with Facebook’s scandal over Russian ads attempting to influence the US election.

Although this relatively innocuous post from a small web development firm on the other side of the world is far less impactful than Russian social media trolls on Facebook appear to have been, the concept of violating user trust via dark patterns is the same. It is absolutely a dark design pattern, and we as a UX community should treat these posts as such.

If nothing else, Quantumcloud has provided us with an excellent case study in why these types of dark patterns and posts – and these types of accounts – have no useful place, and should be banned.

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