Booking flights is generally considered an unpleasant task. This is largely down to the assault course of extras we have to navigate, checking and rechecking that they haven’t been sneakily added into your cart.
Airlines are famous for employing what we refer to as dark patterns. These are elements in the user interface that are purposefully misleading, steering users toward a specific path, usually one that costs more. As Manuel da Costa puts it “Dark patterns take into account human psychology and use it against the visitor.”
If you’re wondering whether dark patterns are worth implementing, consider this question posed by UXer Russell Brown, “Is damaging the reputation of the business worth the extra metrics?”
This month we tear down airline booking procedures to expose dark patterns.
*Note: use of dark patterns is more widespread amongst low cost and mid range airlines, where ticket prices are low and profits are made by selling extras. I checked several premium airlines e.g. Emirates, and saw fewer examples of dark patterns.
More expensive option put in shop front
Hiding free options (Don’t insure me)
Confusing opt-in, opt-out instructions
Dodging added extras
British Airways push their mid-range ticket by applying the word ‘Lowest’ to it. At a glance, it looks like the middle option is the cheapest, if I were in a hurry I might pick it.
This fare is also highlighted in yellow, making it more eye catching.
Southwest Airlines have their cheapest fare in the right-most column, whereas most other airlines put the lowest price on the left.
Whether this is trickery or not is debatable. On the one hand we put calls to action on the right where they more likely to be clicked, so placing the cheaper price on the right could help the user. On the other hand we’re used to looking left for the cheapest option, something Southwest might bank on.
Digital Tonic reviewed Ryanair’s new look website last year. The review shows that the site is better looking than the old design but still hides dark patterns in its booking process.
I took a look for myself and found that although Ryanair select the cheapest ticket price by default they then push you toward expensive extras. One of the ways they do this is by making free options harder to find.
After selecting flights I had to provide personal details and was given the option of buying insurance. Declining insurance is made as difficult as possible.
When I filled in my name I noticed that Ryanair simultaneously changed the insurance option and added UK insurance for me, adding £8.70 to my basket.
When I changed the dropdown back to ‘Insurance – country of residence’, hoping this would convey my not wanting insurance, I found I couldn’t proceed. The ‘Continue’ button was clickable but the page didn’t react. What was wrong?
I had to scroll to the top before I understood the problem. There at the top of the screen was an error message, telling me I had to choose an option from the Insurance list.
I would usually put this down to poor execution of error messaging but, given the amount of misleading instructions throughout the website, could this be more sinister?
To opt out of insurance you must look in the country selector for ‘Do not insure me’, which is hidden amongst the list of alphabetically arranged countries, rather than at the top.
Figuring out whether a checkbox is opt-in or opt-out is frustrating. You’ll see this doozy on many other websites besides airline booking, we’ve even blogged about it before in Do Not Untick This Box If You Do Not Want To Receive Updates.
The Irish, with their gift of the gab (I can say it, I’m Irish), display two particularly good examples of how frustrating it can be.
Ryanair’s opt-out message consists of three sentences, giving contradictory information. The message is designed to seem like your information will be kept private when in fact users are agreeing to join a marketing list unless they check the box.
The words chosen and how they are arranged is very clever. The message begins “only be used to contact you about your booking unless you are subscribed”. Great, I’m not subscribed and I don’t want to be so I’ll leave that box. This appears to be reconfirmed at the end, “best offer then please tick the box.” I’ll assume again that I only tick the box if I do want offers. Actually, this is an opt-out box and I haven’t noticed because I skim read, like many other people. This is a carefully constructed message to make me think it’s an opt-in box.
Long time rivals of Ryanair, Aer Lingus, also have confusing instructions for their marketing sign up.
Underneath a checkbox to opt in for SMS messages is a second checkbox with smaller writing relating to email-based marketing. At a glance, I would assume that the second line of text still relates to SMS messaging, which I am not opting in for, so wouldn’t bother to read it.
This message is harder to read due to the small font size, isn’t placed near the email form field, and comes directly after an ‘opt-in’ checkbox, all of which tells me that this is purposefully misleading.
Most airlines offer added extras in the checkout but this isn’t simple upselling. Sometimes items are selected by default and often I can’t continue without viewing 10 or so extras.
Besides sidestepping insurance, I also have to scroll past this list of extras in order to continue:
- Checked bags
- Reserved seating
- SMS alerts
- Parking at the airport
- Airport transfers
- Checking bulky items e.g. prams
- Hotel booking
- Car rental
- Suitcases of specific dimensions
It’s not always clear if these cost extra or not. After the difficulty declining insurance I mistrusted the booking system so thoroughly checked the extras to ensure none were pre-selected.
Virgin America’s booking site is undeniably cool (just look at the illustrations above used to depict cities) but it too is hiding dark patterns.
After choosing the flights I want, I’m shown a diagram of the plane, complete with costing for each seating area. It all looks so easy. What the site doesn’t do is make it obvious that this is an optional cost. Hidden at the top of the page is a small link allowing you to continue without choosing a seat.
Virgin America have called the link ‘skip’, which could lead some users to believe they’re only skipping for now. In fact, you’re not obliged to choose a seat at all.
Unexplained price increase for credit cards
Ryanair and easyJet
Both easyJet and Ryanair charge extra to passengers who wish to pay by credit card or via Paypal. Neither make it obvious why. Ryanair are also misleading with the language they use, calling the lower debit card price a ‘discount’.
The term ‘dark patterns’ was coined by UX consultant Dr Harry Brignall. Brignall says he wanted to give a name to the tricks and so make it easier for people to talk about them. As he points out, if we know about them we’re less likely to be fooled by them.
He also set up darkpatterns.org, a website for exposing dark patterns on sites such as Currys.co.uk and seetickets.com and apps such as Skype.
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