I just fell down a rabbit hole learning about Dark Patterns, thanks largely to a link in an, as ever, well thought out Adactio post. To be clear, I knew what a Dark Pattern was, I just hadn't come across the term for them before. In brief, then, a Dark Pattern is a UI decision created to get a user to do something without really knowing why or how. It's trickery and marketing merged into one and can be used to generate actual sales, push you to a specific part of a website or article, draw your attention away from negative elements or get you to agree to participate in some way. Basically, Dark Patterns aren't great. They're a bit morally dubious, they can leave a bad taste in your mouth and they can actively confuse or negatively impact people.
Sounds like something that should be avoided and shunned by any morally conscious designer, right? And probably something that, when noticed, should be shamed, yes? Good, we're on the same page. But then I read a well reasoned break down of why Booking.com is a pretty awful abuser of exactly this type of user experience design. The full article, titled How Booking.com Uses Stress to Rush Your Decisions and written by Roman Cheplyaka, is a smorgasbord of dodgy design decisions. From fake urgent messages ("Someone just booked the hotel you're looking at!") to hiding negative reviews, Booking.com does not fare well when analysed with a Dark Pattern mindset. Time for a boycott then, right?
Well, put simply, no. I use Booking.com quite a lot. I'm a registered member and a recipient of their "Genius" discounts, which have saved me a fair amount over the past few years. I like the wide selection of hotels that are on offer, I like how key information is displayed and I particularly like their search functionality which makes drilling down through results incredibly quick and easy. I've recommended the service to countless friends and family and I'm not about to stop anytime soon. Do I find the urgent messages and dire warnings of inaction irritating? Yes. Have I occasionally found myself booking a room faster than I probably ought to have because of a fear of missing a deal? Yes. The Dark Patterns are clearly working, and are definitely reducing my enjoyment of the service being provided, but it isn't a big enough issue to tip the balance away from all the positives.
Interestingly, it seems like Roman comes to a similar conclusion. Somehow, Booking.com has done such a good job in their general, overall experience that the little irritations can be happily ignored. Some of them I don't even agree with. Is cherry picking reviews a bit dubious? Yes, I guess so, but at the same time I would expect promotion to skew those results a little. I've left negative reviews in the past and know they haven't been censored or removed, so I trust the reviews that are present to be indicative of general opinion. I would also never, personally, go on three reviews alone to inform my decision; as with eBay and Amazon I will always read the most recent couple of reviews, a couple of the best reviews (and note when they were made) and a couple of the worst reviews (also noting date posted) to get a good spread. Booking.com makes finding those reviews so painless that I've never really noticed the ones on the main page are curated.
I will also defend their five-step rating system. You can always expand a review score to see how the aggregate has been calculated and having five specific categories makes doing so a lot easier. In the example given in the article, Roman states that:
A great location will not compensate for sleepless nights
But I have to disagree a little bit. Obviously, it depends on what you're looking for, but I will happily sacrifice comfort for location if that's a priority. If I'm going to a big city and planning on being out until the early morning anyway, I don't really care about late night noise but I do care about walking distance to the venue (for example) that I'll be visiting. It's a bit of a pedantic argument, but I feel like their ratings scheme is genuinely useful and wouldn't, personally, regard it in anyway "Dark", which shows that the concept can be a little subjective.
At any rate, agree or not, the article is well put together and is worth a read if you use Booking.com, if for no other reason than to be a little more aware of the strategies the are employing. If you do find it a stressful experience, perhaps it may even help.