Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

The other day, I went out for lunch with a friend. We went to a great café and I got to enjoy a favorite dish of mine, shakshuka. The food was delicious, the coffee was high-quality, but I was still pissed off.


Because I was tricked into an unreasonable amount.

When I say I was tricked, I’m not suggesting that I was challenged with a riddle or someone forced my hand. I’m suggesting that, through a subtle , I accidentally tipped 25%.

First, what’s a dark pattern?

A dark pattern is when the design of an interface tricks the user into doing something they may not have wanted to do.

For example, have you ever seen a pop-up ad that has no way to close it? Maybe the x fades in after a few seconds? Or even worse, have you ever clicked “close ad” only to be redirected to a new page? These are dark patterns.

Psychology, Habits, and Digital Marketing

There are some fine lines separating psychology, habits, and digital marketing. Using the way humans interact with the world to influence design is largely considered good user experience (). Accommodating user’s habits is also something that is usually considered good  — to the degree that we even follow guidelines when designing, such as a menu on the bottom of the screen for iOs apps. Digital marketing is understanding how to use psychology and habits to generate sales. A terrific example of designed to encourage user purchases would be the Amazon “One-click” feature.

This button has cost me a LOT of money

By streamlining the purchases, this utilizes our desire for efficiency and ease. And as a result, many users turn the use of this button into a habit. I, for one, order random things I need using this button all the time.

Imagine that the button was moved

Now imagine that Amazon moved the 1-Click button. But not only that, imagine that Amazon also put a different button there. Perhaps an “Apply for Amazon VISA” button.

It is very likely that when I went to order a new wire whisk, I may accidentally apply for a new credit card on accident.

On its own, the placement of a button is relatively harmless. But by manipulating user psychology to encourage the use of a button, then creating a habit — it is now the responsibility of the company to not use that habit to deceive the user.

What does this have to do with shakshuka

I live in an urban area where many of the POS (Point of Sale) systems are fairly modern. Companies like Clover, Square, and Toast have all modernized the user flow of paying for items.

There are many benefits to this modernization, a big one being more small businesses accepting credit cards.

However, one controversial feature of these POS systems is the tipping function.

No More Tip Jars

Photo by Sam Truong Dan on Unsplash

Tipping using these POS systems is very simple. A few options come up on the screen, you press one, and then you get some receipt options, and maybe an option to sign up for a rewards program.

The issues:

  • Social Pressure — in the olden days, when there was some ratty glass jar with stickers on it, asking for help paying for their college tuition, there was limited social pressure to tip. However, the current system usually has a button that says “No Tip.” This uses psychology by exploiting the guilt we feel in actively not tipping as opposed to passively ignoring a tip jar. The semi-public nature of a large, bright screen, easily visible by the people behind us in line, compounds this guilt. On certain systems, there actually isn’t a “no tip” button, but instead an “Other” button that requires manual entry of $0.00.
  • No Standardization — there are many versions of the tip screen. It is my belief that there is some customization that is left up to the business using the system. I have been to places where the options are 15%, 18%, and 20%. I have also been to places where the options were 18%, 20%, and 25%. Many of these systems use a formula where any item priced below a certain threshold switch from percentages to dollar amounts. So if I get a coffee for $3.50 it may ask if I’d like to tip $1, $2 or $3. Meaning the lowest amount I can tip (in accordance with social pressure issues) would be around 30%.
  • Awkward Social Interactions — it is important to always think of the users on both sides of an interface like this. I have worked in a number of businesses, but only one where we had a system like this. It was always awkward to turn the screen to the user and stand there waiting for them to decide how much to tip me. I wanted to scream, “you don’t have to tip, I’m just pouring you a coffee,” but alas, I was forced to just avert my eyes and wait for the torture to end.
  • Larger Economic/Political Fallout — the minimum wage in the US is a controversial subject. Some people feel like everyone should make enough to live and others are Republicans. (Sorry, but it’s true) Tipping systems like this encourage legislation that includes these tips as part of the employee’s compensation. Additionally, I’m assuming workers are required to pay taxes on these tips as they are digitally collected. I’m not suggesting we get rid of tipping, but I do believe discussions about the larger political impact of features is important. (See Google and Facebook go to Congress)


I’ve always been a generous tipper. This is not because I am made of a different sort of stardust, it is merely because I’ve worked in food service in the past and understand the work. But today, I went to a coffee shop and purchased a coffee for $3.25 and was asked if I wanted to tip $1.75 (53%), $2.25(69%) or $2.75(84%). And I had to push past my guilt to press other, and type in $1.00, a measly 30%.

And the other day, I bought a shakshuka, and because the buttons were in the reverse order from what I was used to (right to left instead of left to right), I tipped 25%.


I appreciate the claps! You can clap up to 50 times!

Who claps once for anything? Weirdo…

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