Dark Patterns in Cloud Computing Design

Concept photo in high contrast black and white of hacker's fingers on keyboard

It is easier to acquire computing power today than it ever has been – but are we consuming it in a beneficial manner? This question has stuck in my mind ever since AWS re:Invent, when it was announced that AWS’s recent YoY growth rate was more than 40% for 2014. That’s a huge growth percentage, and it’s huge compared to the growth rates of colocation companies that were at the top of the computing industry before Amazon. (Remember Exodus, anyone?) It really made me think – are all of those new Amazon, Azure and Google customers performing an equivalent exchange of computing, an equal amount of service from source to destination? Or do our behaviors as consumers change based on the desires of the provider, causing us to consume extras that add to the profitability of the provider?

The design behind altering user consumption is so widely implemented in online storefronts that it has a name: it’s called a “dark pattern”. A dark pattern is “a user interaction that is purposefully designed to trick you into doing something extra that you didn’t originally intend to do”. Some of the most common dark patterns are “add-ons” from online interactions. Buying something online? Don’t be surprised if the “receive emails from our marketing list” checkbox is already selected for you. Buying an airline ticket? It’s not such a great deal when you realize a $25 bag check fee has been automatically added during the checkout process. Most of us don’t realize the extras that have been added to our transaction – and while much of it can be undone or refunded, that process is deliberately made more difficult than the original purchase process (usually, just difficult enough to dissuade the majority of consumers).

Dark patterns in cloud computing

With the advent of cloud computing, the ability and ease with which to exploit this pattern in human behavior is unprecedented. Before cloud computing, you would sign a contract with a colocation provider. Everything was spelled out in that contract – there was no opportunity to consume anything you didn’t need, because you, the consumer, dictated the terms when you approached that provider. But now, there are a lot of opportunities for providers to upsell, cross-sell, and add things that consumers didn’t originally intend to purchase. Here are some examples of dark patterns in cloud consumption.

Amazon AWS

Amazon’s most prominent dark pattern is their billing service. Amazon’s billing was designed from the start to attract users with ease of use and a low base rate, but to thereafter add hidden charges based on usage. Amazon has invested in APIs to allow consumption to flow freely, but made it difficult to view resources in all availability zones and nested accounts in a single window. Since Amazon’s debut, many customers have complained about this, to which Amazon has responded by creating cost calculators, web pages and FAQs that explain billing. They have also added mechanisms that dump detailed billing into S3 buckets (which are very detailed, but leave the processing and sorting up to the consumer). On the outside, it might appear that Amazon is attempting to improve the customer experience, but none of these efforts actually make the customer’s costs more transparent, predictable or easier to manage. If you place yourself in Jeff Bezos’ shoes, it’s easy to see how investing some money in public relations rather than actually addressing the problem benefits Amazon’s revenue numbers.

Microsoft Azure

Azure’s most prominent dark pattern is the use of Azure with Microsoft tools. Microsoft created Azure to attract customers to its cloud offering, and Azure has a lot of great integrations from both System Center and Visual Studio for developers and infrastructure administrators. But once you step outside of the Microsoft ecosystem, Azure is extremely difficult to use with external tools. First of all, the REST API isn’t enabled by default – you must drill down into the portal to enable it. (Visual Studio users simply publish directly to Azure, which either uses a different interface or is enabled by the tool upon sign-in.) Once it’s enabled, you’ll need to then hunt down the required image names and ids – they’re not found in the portal anywhere. I probably don’t have to remind Mac users that all of these tools must run on Windows. Microsoft could invest in more tools or simply change the default setting across all of Azure, but I get the feeling that this is a subtle way to incentivize users to both use the Microsoft tools, and not to price-shop elsewhere.

These examples aren’t listed to vilify their parent companies – on the contrary, I think Amazon and Microsoft provide new and interesting technologies that enable enterprises to quickly build applications and store data. I just think that we should recognize the design intentions at play here, and that our consumption of cloud computing has changed because of them.

What if we asked the question in reverse – is there a “light” pattern? By a light pattern, I mean a way to design and encourage users to do the right thing, things that are in the users’ best interests? Isn’t that the opportunity for Ostrato and our customers, to enable you with technology that allows you to purchase and consume the optimum amount of computing, at the right price? I certainly think so. It’s a new year, so we’d like to help our customers make good on those New Year’s resolutions they are making for 2015. Lose 10 pounds? Go to the gym every day? There’s an app for that. Buy the right computing? We’d like to be your app for that, too.

Watch our videos to learn more about how you can make good on some of those cloud computing New Year’s resolutions.


This article was written by Jennifer Galvin from Business2Community and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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