Why this startup is helping marketers defend against the dark arts

Deep Labs chief explains how artificial intelligence is helping combat dark patterns and improving consumer judgment digitally

Since its invention, marketing has strived to influence people to do things they may not have otherwise done. Whether that is to encourage a person to buy a product they have never brought before, or switch from a preferred brand, or engage in any number of new behaviours, marketers have built a formidable skill set in changing the way people think, feel and behave.

As marketers have become more sophisticated, so too have the tools they use – most recently reflected in the use of artificial intelligence to analyse vast amounts of data and make nuanced and powerful recommendations to change behaviours.

Unfortunately, the tools available do not discriminate based on whether they are used for good or for ill, and the result has been consumers being influence into making decisions that might not be to their benefit.

For Scott Edington, CEO at San Francisco-based AI startup, Deep Labs, techniques used to steer people away from their better judgement are what he refers to as dark patterns. And they have become something he and his team are keen to protect people from.

“Ultimately what we are trying to do with our technology is, where appropriate, apply intelligent friction,” Edington tells CMO.

He defines intelligent friction as means to detect signals that might indicate a person is in danger of making a rash decision and then intercede on their behalf. Dark patterns, on the other hand, include scenarios such as when people are shamed into providing personal information they may not want to give, or where artificial scarcity is used to drive people towards a purchase sooner than they might prefer.

“What we are trying to do is figure out a way, using artificial intelligence and specifically machine learning, to try and decipher those signals, then truly understand what those signals are doing or could do to a consumer. From there, we figure out ways to mitigate their impact,” Edington says.

“What we are looking at is design features that effectively look at human psychology and figure out ways to exploit it and, in some cases, drive rash decisions or impulse buying.”

Where dark pattern combat is needed the most

Much of the company’s work has focused on protecting vulnerable people, which has seen Deep Labs focus on those who do not have mature financial or digital literacy. Another group it’s seeking to assist are people who have a high tendency towards depression, self-doubt or anxiety, and who again are highly likely to fall victim to dark patterns.

“If you understand how people can be influenced, then you can also help them and point them in a direction,” Edington says.

The techniques Deep Labs uses to steer consumers on to a better path include soft interventions such as implementing ‘cooling off’ periods, seeking additional confirmations of intentions, or distracting the user from that dark pattern.

Where Edington’s company has come to the fore has been through its ability to make inferences about consumers based on very weak digital signals and use these to match them to personas.

“Because of artificial intelligence, the ability to infer understanding of individuals is now available, so you don’t have to have to know about the last 15 years of someone’s transaction history to understand who someone is at the moment in time,” Edington says.

“By creating multidimensional profiles in effective real time, I can tell you with a high degree of predictive capability, at greater than 95 per cent, that an actor [person] at that time is most likely to want to do the following things. All of this is done using and discovering latent signals and stitching them together and being able to create a multidimensional profile.

“The challenge we all have right now is that due to the pandemic of the last two years, everything is an anomaly. The long-term profiles of who you believe ‘Scott Edington’ is has change dramatically. Even the short-term profile has shifted.”

While distracting consumers from unfortunate transactions might be anathema to some marketers, Edington says Deep Labs has found a willing customer base in the global payment ecosystem, where clients have been keen to reduce the level of chargebacks and other negative outcomes. Edington says this is achieved by identifying and reducing those interactions where consumers may believe they have been tricked into making a purchase, or do not believe they ever had made a purchase.

“Whether you are a payment network, merchant or a large bank, everyone has a vested interest in making sure you don’t have bad actors doing nefarious things. Because if you undermine the credibility of the payments ecosystem then consumers stop buying and no one wins,” Edington says.

“If you have these technologies and you understand how the bad actors and bad influencers are leveraging the technology, then you can create safety valves and mechanisms to combat them. And the good news is these techniques and methodologies, and the underlying technology, are being deployed at scale.

“Whether the consumers know it or not, I can assure that behind the scenes it is being deployed and they are making very good headway. We build solutions that help our customers be more mindful.”

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