The Dark Side of Product Management

A demon

Much like the Star-Wars series, product management also has its dark sides.

Unlike Star-Wars – product people are not switching to the dark side because they are seeking power and control. We are rather slowly drifting there while still having the best intentions at heart and while trying to accomplish what was asked of us.

 

What am I talking about?!

I am talking about dark patterns.

 

Dark patterns are features and flows that were designed to provide value solely to the company which owns the product and usually at the expense of value to the end user.

 

Here, let’s take an example from a non-techy product – baby wipes!

A package of wipes

Eh? Baby wipes? What baby wipes have to do with dark patterns?

Baby wipes are very useful in many situations, most of which involve babies. They are also useful when eating ice-cream, hamburgers and for quickly removing breadcrumbs from a table (making you feel it’s clean even-though everyone knows it’s not… :-)).

But there is one annoying feature which is common to many wipes packages I’ve stumbled upon in my life:

It’s super hard to pull only 1 wipe from the package. When you pull for 1, you may get 2, 3 and sometimes even 6.

You can find rants, discussions and hacks over the web such as the one here.

Is this a coincidence?

I don’t think so.

In fact – I’m sure it’s not.

This is a clear dark pattern which sadly has become a common practice by many of the wipes packaging companies. By delivering this ‘feature’ – you’re using more wipes than you need, you consume the package faster and it forces you to buy more wipes, more frequently than actually needed. It’s a dirty trick for increasing sales.

 

Switching back to the tech world – there are plenty of examples for dark patterns. Here are some, but you can easily come up with more:

  1. When you execute a program installer on Windows and as part of the installation process, if you are not careful, when clicking on ‘next’ blindly you will actually end up installing several other programs which you had no intention of using. This happens also with well established brands (I won’t mention names now because I’m only 99% sure and not 100%).
  2. If you worked with WordPress then you know it’s very common to install plugins for extending the functionality of the platform. Some of the free plugins will constantly send you notifications that when opened will suggest that you upgrade to the paid version. Now, it’s ok to have a constant button on the screen when using the plugin that encourages you to upgrade, but it’s a dark pattern when you are alerting the user just to suggest upgrading.
  3. Forcing the user to sign-in just to be able to unsubscribe from a newsletter they don’t want to read – is a dark pattern (and in some countries – it’s actually illegal).
  4. When you discover that your new purchased phone is bloated with pre-bundled apps that you are never going to use. And if this wasn’t enough, some manufacturers are even making this dark pattern even darker – Samsung for example, won’t let you uninstall those apps even if you want to (this applies to its SmartTV as well).

 

And indeed – most dark patterns can be found in consumer products, or at least where the end user is involved. When I’m trying to think about B2B products which include dark patterns then I am having hard times. I think it’s because the end user is not the one making the purchasing decisions so there is no point in tricking him to make an unconscious decision here and there.

I do have 1.5 examples from the non consumer world, though. There first one is Google Calendar:

Google’s calendar will give you hell each time you’re trying to set up a Zoom meeting instead of Google Meet. I mean – it’s ok to have Google Meet as the default for fresh users. But I am not a fresh user. My company has purchased a Zoom account for me and I think it works better. Why do I need to change the option each and every time I’m setting up a meeting? You don’t need an AI for that. Just need to recall my last selected preference. So this is clearly by design… and it’s clearly a dark pattern.

 

So this is one example. The second one is more vague and arguable, but I will share it anyway:

Cloud services, in general (and this applies to all providers) – will make it super easy for devOps and developers to make configuration mistakes that eventually will cost the company much more. I’ve seen this in more than one company.

The cloud providers don’t make it easy for you to understand the predicted costs of your current configuration and actual usage. They could easily extrapolate the current usage and notify you when the expected bill is going to exceed your expectations by a margin, but it seems less effort is invested in such cost prediction tools and mechanics for avoiding unexpected costs.

But again – this is not as clear and cut as the examples I’ve provided above.

 

Product Managers and Dark Patterns

Now, back to you as a product manager or a product leader.

Most of the dark patterns I know aim to increase the KPIs of the company producing the product. They either aim to increase sales, increase conversions or whatever other metric the company is using to measure its success.

And actually – some of the dark patterns are very creative, so you can’t blame the product managers who come up with them with lack of creativity.

I think it’s just that the energy is not put in the right direction.

As a product manager, you may be stressed by your superiors to come up with features that will improve the bottom line. 

When designing such features it’s your decision whether to invest the extra effort to make sure each feature benefits the end users as well and not just your company. I do believe some of the dark features are the result of laziness

Sometimes the idea doesn’t originate from you. Sometimes, the actual feature (“ok, let’s bloat the phone with many pre-bundled apps and we’ll get much more money from each sale”) will be handed to you from ‘above’. Someone from sales or business has convinced the management that this is the right thing to do – and you were asked to execute on that and not ask any questions.

Don’t make yourself a marionette. You do have power. Consider using it and pushing back. Of course I don’t want you to lose your job – so be smart. Maybe if we’ll have a short discussion about the price your company pays for dark patterns – it will help? 

Let’s stall on that for a second.

 

The Price of Dark Patterns

Let’s drill down to some of the examples above:

In the case of Google Meet vs. Zoom – if you are the product manager of Google Meet – you need to understand that by forcing me each and every time to switch to Zoom and stall the set up for 5 seconds – you are making me to dislike Google even more, to the point where the decision to use Zoom becomes a principle rather actual rational decision based on the value of each of the products. After all – Zoom is good, but far from perfect

Why not focus on its incompetency and work on these missing features instead?

 

In the example of the installer above which installs additional software if I’m not careful – you (the product manager of the installer) need to understand that I’m developing a lack of trust with your brand.

Last – I stopped using Samsung’s products because of the inability to uninstall pre-bundled software. I ditched my Samsung phone and my Samsung TV, and about to ditch my Samsung watch. I also stopped recommending these products to friends and I wrote some reviews about it.

 

So dark patterns may seem to work on the bottom line – but they come with a price as well. As a product manager you need to consider this price and maybe even communicate it to your superiors if they are forcing your hand. This may be the ammo you need to reverse such decisions.

I do acknowledge, though, that sometimes this is a lost battle. Sometimes the decision makers are stronger than you and you have no choice but to execute. You need to pick your battles – so as they say:

Change what you can, accept what you can’t change and have the wisdom to distinguish between the two

Embracing the entrepreneur hat for a second – most of the realities can change, but it may take time. So make sure you win the war even if you lose the battle.

 

As for myself – I’ve sworn that I’ll never be the origin of a dark feature. It could be that I’ll have no choice but to execute on a decision made from above – but it will never come from me and I’ll do my best to reverse such decisions when they land (under the guidelines above in order to minimize the risks of losing my job).

 

That’s it for today.

If you found this post/series useful – let me know in the comments. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

Related posts

A man is buttoning his suit

The CEOs You’ll be Working With

The previous posts were somewhat ‘heavy’ so today I’d like to have a shorter and lighter post. Hence, today we’ll be discussing the various types

Two robots sitting back to back

Asta La Vista Baby!

Maybe I’m late to the party, I don’t know, but it took me some time to process it. I gave it a lot of thought

An advanced robot leaning forward

Never Say Always

Ideals, principles and values People just love to hold on to them. I get it.  It gives us a sense of control over the chaotic