Dark patterns: a term popularised in the field of User Experience by Harry Brignull, UX guy at Clearleft. But what are they?
Normally when you think of “bad design”, you think of laziness or mistakes. These are known as design anti-patterns. Dark Patterns are different – they are not mistakes, they are carefully crafted with a solid understanding of human psychology, and they do not have the user’s interests in mind.
Remind you of anything about the travel industry? (Or rather, remind you of everything about the travel industry!?!)
Travel brands generally have a fairly poor reputation in consumers’ eyes for being slightly underhand and potentially deliberately misleading when it comes to pricing their products. Whether it’s a hotel, a flight or a package holiday, if you buy travel frequently no doubt you’ve had the experience where the person next to you on the ‘plane or at breakfast has paid a different (usually lower) price to you and it makes you mad.
The accusation from consumers
The main thrust of the accusation from consumers is that travel brands deliberately rip off their customers all for the sake of a few quid here and there. Worst of all, it appears that the most loyal and valuable customers are treated the worst when it comes to pricing; doesn’t loyalty count for anything these days?
There’s evidence for this too….
1. Ryanair are infamous for their almost anti-customer approach. (But bizarrely it seems to be working.) An article by Chris Anderson(of Long Tailfame), shows how Ryanair don’t make their money from ‘plane tickets. The ratio of 70:30, where the 30 is roughly the money made from the ticket is possibly not much of a surprise to people who have experienced Ryanair’s relentless drive for ancillary revenue.
2. Easyjet are next up. Adding insurance into your basket when you buy a flight in order to up the margin per passenger is could be described as sleight of hand, and actually passengers do need insurance in order to fly. They just don’t necessarily need to buy it from Easyjet. Plus adding on credit card surcharges even when a debit card is used for the transaction — a mere bagatelle!
3. Price transparency is an issue – why can’t travel companies provide a price breakdown so I can see exactly how the price is made up and ensure there’s no miscalculation going on?
4. Most of all though with tour operators, customers get most enraged that exactly the same holiday can be sold for different prices depending on the closeness of the departure date and the amount of availability the operator has at the time of purchasing. No other industries would be allowed to get away with that!
This all adds up to a sneaking feeling – often backed up by evidence as in the cases above – that travel companies are all about trying to get one over on us, and as consumers we need to do all we can to highlight it and punish it (by voting with our feet and spending our money with the “better” operators).
This sadly, in a nutshell, is one of the keys to TripAdvisor’s success.
What is happening in reality
From my 8 years’ experience working in a larger tour operator I think I have a bit of insight into what goes on behind closed doors. Call me defensive if you like, but these are some of the arguments that have been thrown back at me over the years.
1. Consumers don’t understand the travel business model
Insiders like me know that there are very few customer-facing industries that have as many externally-derived complexities as travel. An “ordinary” package holiday relies on so many links in the chain to get right, and typically, if you’re operating at any sort of scale, you plan for things to go wrong. Some of those things are out of the company’s control. And yet some customers expect – sometimes to the point of physical abuse – for the company to rectify them, even if it means ‘changing the colour of the sand‘.
When it comes to making money in travel, despite the large profits announced by the larger airlines and tour operators, people don’t realise that the margins on each sale are extremely tight. If you’re at 5% profit (before tax) then you’re probably outperforming the market. (Compare that to Google’s >14% and Apple’s 22%. Facebook I would rather not go into… Amazon’s should be the topic of another post…)
Cost control and delivering results are the usually the top two priorities for any travel CEO and CFO team – especially over the past 4-5 years’ of rocky economy. The competition and macro-economics drive a lot of short-term thinking.
So what to do:
a. Open up. Tell people about your business in the same way that made.com has done in home furnishings. Customers may be interested and trust your brand more as a result. Perhaps remind people that other industries like greengrocers operate a variable pricing model and have done since markets were invented. C’est la vie!
b. Close down. Customers don’t NEED to know about your business – why should they be interested? Your brand should simplify and hide the complexities away from the customer so your brand to them seems like a magical black box or a magic wand.
An imponderable choice!
2. Low margins and a competitive environment attracts bean counters to the top jobs
It takes a certain decisiveness, defiance of logic and determination to swim against the tide of the big players in travel. It is an industry steeped in introspective thinking, supply chain fragmentation and a relentless drive towards commoditisation through value-engineered competition and technology disruption. This is precisely where number crunchers “get their kicks”. Unsurprisingly, the internally-focussed risk-averse approach has worked, year after year. And it still is working, for some. So why change?
Those wanting to raise the bar a little higher, and get out of the inevitable race to the bottom this implies, can consider new value-creating levers:
- defining your brand clearly (First Choice)
- product differentiation and exclusivity (Thomson)
- customer service (Virgin)
- or customer experience even (I humbly volunteer: Crystal Ski)
These are all skillsets that sit within (whisper it!) Marketing, in my experience the least powerful department in a travel compa
ny. (The most powerful is Finance, as it is in most companies, in case you were wondering).
3. Low margins prevent IT investment, increasing “work arounds” and driving complexity that surfaces in online interfaces
The legacy systems that most big travel companies use are not just legacy as we know it today. Expedia’s core software was coded over 15 years ago, I am reliably informed. You can call that legacy – even in a supposedly dotcom company. Some of the systems I have dealt with were designed in the 1970s. In COBOL, or FORTRAN. They are not “legacy” they are “pre-historic”; there may be just 30 people in the world than can continue developing and maintaining them.
These systems were never designed to support the large-scale self-serve real-time requirements of the web, let alone smartphones and tablets. And yet, it’s too risky and expensive to replace them wholesale.
The easy win here is to provide “low hassle” product options. Products that don’t require any explanation for customers to hand over their credit card to buy from you.
4, The business model needs changing – but transformation is not easy
Low margins also drive lack of investment in new technology – to solve these problems and correct any busines model issues
Low margins drive low salaries meaning the best people who can transform your company probably work for expensive management consultants with swanky offices in central London.
Getting to the nub of the issue
Dark patterns will always exist where the leadership of the organisation is not customer-focused – and 9 times out of 10 they aren’t, and to hit their business objectives they don’t have to be.
Ryanair, Easyjet and hundreds of other airlines and tour operators continue to make profits and satisfy their shareholders without needing to put a huge focus on the customer. There are simply too many opportunities to innovate from the inside on supply chains and operational efficiencies to take the risk.
Most UX people don’t run large corporations, yet. When they do they will need to fight the fight with the number crunchers and bean counters to come up with good win-win solutions. So expertise in design will only be one string to their bow.