Is the "hot network questions" element on Stack Overflow a dark pattern?

  • I asked a question on meta about hiding the "hot network questions" element on One of the comment replies was that the "hot network questions" is basically a way for Stack Overflow to keep me on the site longer even to the point of distracting me from why I originally came here (to get an answer to a technical question/to answer technical questions and raise my stack score).

    It is always in your eyeline, except on certain pages like settings/question formatting page with no way to disable it/modify it.

    So if you think about it in that context, is it a dark pattern? In my opinion this is similar to a persuasive pattern that becomes a dark pattern when you take away user choice... similar to how Quora shows you other questions in the middle of reading answers to a question.

    Edit(March 16th, 2019)Stack ended up adding the ability to remove HNQ-

    Hey, you are distracting me by posting a question listed in the HNQ!

    If you have an adblocker and you want to hide the HNQ, you can filter out id `hot-network-questions`.

    HNQs often feels like clickbait to me since the questions often have weird titles if you don't know their context (especially questions from world building or about games), though I'm not sure if it counts as dark pattern to intentionally leave out the context.

    You distracted me from my work with this question trough the HNQ Section... I'll now go back and read the answers for my problem I currently have at work. :D

    @kkarakk if you are on a computer and hover over the question's icon with your mouse a tooltip appears with the stack name in it. (you don't have to click.)

    I've literally seen this as a Hot Network Question. Personally, I honestly appreciate how they feed intellectual curiosity.

    @kapex I have made sort of a crusade of editing question titles to more accurately request what's actually being asked.

    Judging from the fact that YOU CAN'T DISABLE IT, it most certainly is.

    @Davor By that definition, any standard ad banner would be a black pattern and that's nowhere near the definition of the concept. HNQ element is just an ad banner, some like it, some don't, but it's just a (more or less) intrusive ad and not a disguised ad since you know perfectly where those links lead to.

    @Davor: Well, it's pretty easy to disable it actually, just not through site settings. Install an ad blocker that lets you make your own filters (uBlock Origin, AdBlock Plus, whatever) and make a filter for `###hot-network-questions` (`` and `` if you want to be 100% sure it doesn't affect other sites with a coincidentally overlapping element `id`). That filter format works for two blockers I mentioned; might use different format for other blockers.

    For completeness' sake, 400+ users have seen them as more than just minor nuisance and something which hurts productivity: Meta.SE thread on how to hide hot network questions on the sidebar

    If it's not "dark pattern" what is this farce of a feature called? Click bait?

    Whatever the pattern is called, it **does** distract me and diverts my attention from what I was supposed to be doing! So good call asking about it.

    @Mazura, the question specifically mentions "dark pattern", not whether it is good or wanted or... "Dark pattern" has a defined meaning, and HNQ is not that. It's a very simple question to answer. If that is a dark pattern, then *any* link on a website is a dark pattern.

    @jonatan Quite true... and even worse, I... *like* it!

  • Devin

    Devin Correct answer

    2 years ago

    No, it's not a dark pattern at all. Neither by definition, nor by interaction. As JonW clearly said, no one is cheating on you to do something that will affect your intention.


    At UX, we work with data to create and improve user engagement. To do this, we use placements, colors, content hierarchies and other "tricks" if you want to call them that. These tricks are based on cognitive and behavioral psychology and a deep understanding of the behaviors of users.

    So it's easy to see why you think you're being cheated: because they're using tricks to keep you engaged. And it seems to work, but at the same time you can say that you are being manipulated by the site (and yes, you are, like everyone else, that's the idea)

    But saying all of the above, this is not a dark pattern, because you are not being forced and there is nothing hidden. You are presented with a set of options with which you can choose to participate. Or not.

    It's like presenting a table full of tasty food, and they tell you that you're free to eat whatever you want. It is up to you whether to do it or not, there is no dark pattern at all, but it is a little worrisome that you (and others) find this as a dark pattern, because that implies one of the most important factors in measuring the effectiveness of a site: trust.

    Finally, going to the HNQ

    They are doing this for you to get involved with other sites on the network. This way, visitors are "cloned", and SE can show engagement values that are real and important to advertisers and investors. The same unique user becomes a different user when interacting with different sub-sites, and the retargeting can be made depending on the different sub-sites and interests for that unique user. We're talking traction and engagement here, and that defines the value of Stack Exchange as a business

    i like this answer because it actually explains why it isn't a dark pattern vs pointing to a list of examples and saying it doesn't fit or that no one is holding a gun to my head to click HNQs

    Interesting. Your answer explains why it is a dark pattern but concludes that it's not. You acknowledge that the box is a distraction but defend that as some sort of clever idea. Any UX element which tricks the user into doing something that they're not intending to do is a negative thing. I generally add a custom CSS sheet to hide the HNQ box but it sometimes gets deleted during upgrades, which ironically, is how I spotted this question in the HNQ box. And true to the dark pattern aspect, I've now wasted 10 minutes on this.

    @Nagora I really don't see where did I say it's a dark pattern. I actually said the exact opposite!

    I think this question and answer both kind of lack on defining what a "dark pattern" is - what is being measured to determine if it is or isn't one? The answer determines it's not one because you're not forced to do anything. Is that the entire agreed upon criteria? I would have thought that would be obvious to the questioner if so.

    @Devin I'd argue that "using tricks to keep you engaged" often falls under the definition of dark pattern if in that particular situation "keeping engaged" is not in the best interests of the user but is implemented to further the behavior desired by the site owner. Even if they weren't forced but just smartly, efficiently nudged to choose that option, it's still manipulation. Intent matters, as does the expected desireability (from user perspective) of the resulting behavior - if the users prefer "being engaged" that way, it's a good thing, and if they resent afterwards, then it's not okay.

    @Devin the key word here being "tricks" - if tricks are needed to facilitate choosing X, then possibly X shoudn't be chosen, and *any* effective tricks to manipulate users to alter their behavior and choose X would be dark patterns. Abstaining from the particular HNQ issue, there are a lot of dark UX patterns that don't rely on forcing or hiding something, but simply exploit human motivation, addictive behavior (e.g. loot box optimization), etc to manipulate user behavior.

    Using your own example, "presenting a table full of tasty food, and they tell you that you're free to eat whatever you want." would be a dark UX pattern if used to sell gym memberships; and gyms would use it if doing so was cheap enough to be cost effective.

    I believe that the HNQ box is a very negative thing and I wish it didn't exist, because distracting people from what they were planning to do is just not good for the world, it is part of the big problem with the Web. But Dark Pattern has a specific meaning and it's not that.

    @Peteris, I literally said this: *"tricks"* if you want to call them that. I said **if you want to call them that (way)**, used italics and quotes. I think it's pretty clear that it's a metaphor for the perception that a user can have. You can call it CogSci Research, Design Principles or OKR, what you think is better. And yes, the whole goal of UX is to obtain a result and facilitate that result, that's why we use research. You can get results using *legitimate techniques* (so to speak) or dark patterns. They are not the same at all, one facilitates, the other forces the user.

    @MattTreichel, I don't know what the questioner thinks or knows. I didn't feel in need to define what a *dark pattern* is because JonW did it before me in the same page. Anyway, the main component of a dark pattern is to force users to do something without these users noticing or against their will. There are different forms of such *dark patterns*, none of which includes the case under discussion. I hope it's clearer now

    This is an example of website that allows you to choose whether you want a newsletter or not. Still, it shows a dark pattern. "It does not force you" does not equate "it's not a dark pattern", so the argument is a bit flawed.

    @AndreaLazzarotto, maybe we have different definitions of "force". **For me**, your example is like the definitive definition of forcing a user to get an unknown result. I mean ... **the user is forced to take a special step to not get something that she does not even know!** In addition, it violates any accessibility rule that exists to abuse people with visual impairments. I do not understand how you consider that this is not forced, to be honest

    It's a bit insane that some people here are equating simple appeal with dark patterns. By that metric, _all_ engaging UX is a dark pattern.

    @Devin, yet the user is never forced to agree to the newsletter. I am not saying the HNQ box is a dark pattern. I am saying the reasoning you are using to back it up is not valid.

    @Devin Can you please share any article/resource about engagement creation using some tricks based on cognitive and behavioral psychology

    @MatthewRead this is not engaging UX,it's completely distracting UX. Is stackoerflow a social site or a site used to enhance productivity? i think the owners want to make it the former from the latter

    I'm not an authority on UX by any means, but the tag description for `dark-patterns` says: "A design pattern which is carefully crafted to accomplish some result but does not have the user’s interests in mind." HNQ could have some user's interests in mind ("maybe they find that interesting"), but disregards others ("maybe they find that distracting"), and is most likely there for business reasons ("it's good for SE as a company"). The fact it can't be hidden is what makes it dark to me, it's not a feature but an option enforced upon you, like autoplay in YouTube enabling itself time and again.

    @MatthewRead "...all engaging UX is a dark pattern..." Depends probably on the long term effect. If you still like it after some time, it may be good overall, but if you start to hate it, it might be evil. I personally don't care what kind of pattern it is, but I love and hate HNQ because indeed they take too much time away and I need to block them by external means to make the site efficiently usable to me. But I don't care what kind of a pattern it is.

    @jdehesa A Dark Pattern is "carefully crafted to **trick** users into doing things" (emphasis mine) - and, while your mileage may vary, providing an optional "other people enjoyed.." link, however enticingly presented, is not a trick. It's like claiming all Adverts are Dark Patterns - one that pretends to be a valid link in an article ("Click here for more expert answers!"), or pops up full-screen late to try and push itself under your cursor when you click on something else certainly is - but a product displayed in a box clearly marked "Advert" at the side of the page would not be.

License under CC-BY-SA with attribution

Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM

Tags used