How Medium’s New ‘Paid Story’ Icon is a True Dark Pattern

Like many people here on Medium, I’ve been subscribed to the Daily Digest emails for a while. They’ve been a good way to find things to read on my daily commute, and I think in general the idea has probably been the main reason I’ve stuck on Medium for all this time.

However, there’s one change there’s that really bugged me recently.

Namely, the premium articles listed in the emails. Why? Because for whatever reason, it seems Medium has made it rather difficult to figure out which ones those are.

Seriously, look at this email I’ve received today. Can you tell which articles there are for paying members only?

Note the political slant Medium’s editors also seem to have taen

No? Well I didn’t understand for ages either. There’s no clear indication here about which stories are premium at all.

Well, except for that tiny star icon.

Yup, that’s right. The only mark that a story in the Daily Digest is for paying members only is a tiny star shaped icon next to the author name.

Not a label like they had before. Oh no, that would seem perfectly logical.

Just a single tiny star icon that could mean absolutely anything. In fact, it’s the sole reason I clicked on about 90% of articles I did the first time this change was made. Because I thought (like a reasonable person) that the icon might mean recommended or highly rated or something else relating to the quality of the content.

But no, it just means it’s pay only. Cue the error pages and notices that I’ve ‘run out of free reads for this month’ or what not. It’s absolutely infuriating in its obtuseness.

And that makes me wonder. Why would a site like Medium, one which seemingly has a decent design team, make such a stupid UI decision?

Well, I think it’s quite simple really. It’s deliberate. The designers deliberately set up the email to make it as unclear as possible as to which articles require paying and which don’t.

Because when you think about it, ‘paid’ or ‘premium’ or ‘members only’ is one of the most terrifying words for a user to encounter on a service. Saying something costs money is basically a good way of telling your average user that this thing ain’t worth your time and that you should go somewhere else.

Which in turn likely hurt the click through rates of early Digest emails. After all, if about 90% of stories had a big ‘members only’ label, that’s a pretty good sign that this Medium thing might not be all that good after all.

So I feel the designers deliberately muddied up the symbols and layout to try to trick people into clicking these paid articles. After all, if they do that (and have a free read or two), they might think the article is free and share it online. In turn, this may get their followers to pay for a subscription when they realise their promoted content is pay to view.

It’s a clear example of what we call a ‘Dark Pattern’, a UI decision made by a website or program in order to trick users into doing something they wouldn’t otherwise do.

And it’s hence a clear example of how Medium has (in recent years) become more interested in wasting people’s time with awkward design decisions, obnoxious pop ups and other tricks into order to maximise time on the website at the expense of the user experience.

So kudos guys. You tricked a few people with your silly email design change. Hope you’re happy knowing your service is becoming seen as the next Facebook or LinkedIn in the sleazy behaviour department.

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