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Harvest Users’ Information with Forced Registration

| 8 min read

If a company knows you really well, they have more of an opportunity to make money. The second you register with any website, whether it is an online shop or a social platform, they can send you advertisements or even sell your information to other companies. If you’re truly interested in a long-term relationship with the offered services, that’s fine. However, for many occasional users, entering one’s personal information isn’t strictly necessary—and, yes, many will see a red flag and leave. Word gets around quickly in the 21st century, so that’s the sort of reputation you don’t want to cultivate for a company; scarier still is that there’s even more to this as a hazard than you may think. So, read on and learn more about how you’re tricked into giving it to them, anyway, with the forced registration design pattern.

Entering personal details can be tedious, especially when all you want to do is quickly interact with a website in some way, such as entering a competition or contacting an online support team. Worse, it can put users on their guard—and many casual users will be likely to go “Oh, **** that!” on seeing the cue to enter such details, before they slink off to see if they can get a competitor’s version or an illegally generated item instead. Even so, if users want something badly enough, they’re probably going to resign themselves to putting up with a little bit of this nonsense—as long as it really only does turn out to be a ‘little bit’, we should add. In order to harvest as much information from each user as possible, many websites use forced registration, where the user must establish an account before he or she can interact with or use a certain part of the user interface. For example, the screenshot below shows how Vimeo wants to force you to register after landing on their page via their Google advertisement. Only when clicking further, which takes you to the registration pop-up, do you find a search bar, hidden in the right-hand corner, which allows you to browse Vimeo content without signing up. So, no one can ever claim Vimeo backs first-time users into a corner. That’s a pretty slick move on their part.

Author/Copyright holder: Vimeo. Copyright terms and license: Fair Use.

Vimeo uses a softer version of the forced registration design pattern: rather than actually forcing users to register before they can use the website, they make it appear as if it is required (see the first screenshot in this example). Only when clicking the ‘Join now’ button for the Vimeo Basic membership in this screen can the user find functionalities he or she needs for fulfilling a task without registering. The second screen appears; while it still has a registration cue consisting of input fields and ‘Join with’ buttons positioned at center stage, it also offers a search box in the top-right corner.

Why is this classed as a dark pattern?

Other than in obvious circumstances (e.g., when ordering goods), there is almost never a benefit associated with providing websites with more of your personal details than your email address. By forcing you to register—regardless of how simple or brief your intentions might be—the website gains access to a range of information about you that can either be used for their own purposes, such as choosing what spam to send you, or whom to pass your details on to so they can make money from third parties. Instinctively, many users are wise enough to deduce that something is ‘up’ if they find themselves prompted in this way. Depending on how much they want the item they stand to gain by entering their details, most are sure to hesitate for at least a moment and wonder how much bother it will cause further down the road. After all, as forced registration seeks to provoke a comfortable (for the website) surplus of information, we should bear in mind the definition of a related term: volunteering information, which means furnishing (i.e., gushing) more information than the person asking the question need know. On that subject, let’s see just how one-sided that activity tends to be when a human and an artificial intelligence are dealing with each other:

“The computer is notorious for not volunteering information.”
—Geordi La Forge (Character from the “Star Trek – The Next Generation” TV series)

As you can see from the example below, in order to enter a competition, the user is expected to register with the website. Within the registration forms, the user must provide his or her telephone number, email address, and university details. All of these details can be used to send you endless correspondence, filling up your mailbox, answerphone, and email account. In order to soften—or maybe we should say ‘lighten’—the darkness of this registration form, the organization has decided to explain what they will use this information for. In similar situations, it would be sufficient simply to provide an email address as a means of identifying the user (e.g., in the event that user won the competition!). Indeed, it would be wonderful if matters just ended there—without any strings, or chains, attached. Alas, however, the website designers have been instructed to produce a user interface that restricts users unless they provide more details. Although the James Dyson Foundation appears to have respectable intentions, adding proof of student status could be included with the actual entering of the design project, after registration.

Author/Copyright holder: James Dyson Foundation. Copyright terms and license: Fair Use.

As described in the main text, the James Dyson Foundation student competition requires potential participants to register, but also takes the time (and quite some space on the user interface) to explain why they need to provide the information.

The Take Away

Many times, a company needs some information from a user so as to enable access to a service. When this is the case, the user will voluntarily and consciously decide to share this information by registering. However, sometimes a company will force people to give them information when they don’t actually need it for providing their main service. This is when registration becomes a dark pattern. Its only purpose is to harvest information the company can use to send the user more advertisements, or to sell on to third parties. As a responsible designer, you can balance the darkness by adding clear explanations to the registration form, indicating why you need the information.

References & Where to Learn More

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Ryan Raffa. Copyright terms and license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

Jenifer Tidwell, Designing Interfaces: Patterns for Effective Interaction Design, 2010

Martijn van Welie, Pattern Library, 2008

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