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In the UX world, Dark Patterns are called such for a reason. According to Brownlee (Fast Co. Design), Dark Patterns are deceptive UX/UI interactions designed to mislead or trick users to do something they don’t want to do. UX designers began creating these deceptive user interfaces to manipulate users in order to generate more sales, subscriptions and hit target numbers.
If you’re running an ethical eCommerce operation, designers and merchants should steer clear of these tactics. But what exactly are these patterns?
A Closer Look
The main 11 patterns commonly used by designers are as follows:
- Bait and Switch
- Disguised Ads
- Forced Continuity
- Trick Questions
- Hidden Costs
- Price Comparison Prevention
- Privacy Zuckering
- Roach Motel
- Sneak Into Basket
- Friend Spam
While some of these may seem pretty straightforward, ‘the devil is in the details’ with each dark pattern.
The term Dark Patterns was first coined by the London –based UX designer Harry Brignull (Ph.D. Cognitive Science) in August 2010. The following are his definitions of the patterns:
Bait and Switch
As explained by Brignull, the Bait and Switch pattern is when a user is looking to take an action that results in a desired outcome, but instead ends up with an unforeseen result. For example, back in 2016, Microsoft was trying to persuade users to upgrade to Windows 10. In every other version of Windows dating back to the 80s, the ‘x’ button in a dialog box meant “close”. But in this instance, they changed it to mean “Yes, I do want to upgrade my computer to Windows 10”, causing a huge backlash.
These are adverts disguised as other kinds of content or navigation in order to get you to click on them. This typically happens on websites with downloadable content. The actual ‘Download’ button will be much smaller and discreet than a larger ‘Download’ button, used for ad clicks.
This is one of the more sinister Dark Patterns. A classic example is when your free trial with a service comes to an end and your credit card silently starts getting charged without warning. You are not given an easy way to cancel the unwanted automatic renewal.
When a designer uses Trick Questions, it’s typically while filling in a form you respond to a question that tricks you into giving an answer you didn’t intend. This is very common when registering with a service. Typically a series of checkboxes are shown, and the meaning of the checkboxes is alternated so that ticking the first one means “opt-out” and the second means “opt-in”. Essentially this forces the unknowing user into agreeing to something that they did not want to agree to.
Hidden Costs is when a user gets to the last step of the checkout process, only to discover some unexpected charges have appeared, like delivery charges, undisclosed taxes, etc.
Darkpatterns.org has a good example of this. Proflowers.com is a flower retailer in the United States. They provide a perfect example of the ‘hidden costs’ dark pattern. This is their home page:
When you add an item to your cart and proceed to the cart page, you see the price is exactly as expected. There’s no trace of any additional costs.
But after you go to the next page and fill out your card info, and get to the final review page, suddenly there’s $14.99 delivery fees, $4.99 handling fees, and so on. If you were designing an ethical sight, those fees would be disclosed before you let the user input payment information.
The Misdirection pattern is when the design purposefully focuses your attention on one thing in order to distract your focus from another. Most Dark Patterns generally use this trick in some way. According to a Shopify piece on Dark Patterns, the most well-known example of intentional misdirection is Ryanair’s design.
When purchasing a flight, users are asked to select their country of residence—a mandatory question. Most users logically select their country of residence. However, the question is actually related to buying travel insurance—in the list of countries, and ‘No travel insurance required’ is an option listed between Latvia and Lithuania. Users who aren’t aware of this will therefore be tricked into purchasing travel insurance which isn’t actually mandatory. Super sketchy.
Price Comparison Prevention
This pattern is when the UX makes it hard for you to compare the price of an item with another item, so a consumer purposefully cannot make an informed decision. Designers will finesse this by creating different bundles where it is not easy to work out the unit price of the singular items within the bundles. This was a common practice with many mobile operators in the early 2000s. Some supermarkets still use a similar technique, selling packaged products without showing the price per weight. There’s nothing quite like gaining a consumer’s loyalty by not letting them know how much their grapefruit is.
This one is pretty high on the ‘sketch meter’, in fact, it’s named after the King of sketch himself, Mark Zuckerberg. Privacy Zuckering is when a user is tricked into publicly sharing more information about themself than they originally planned. When you use a service (e.g. a store card), the small print hidden in the Terms and Conditions gives them permission to sell your personal data to anyone. Data brokers buy it and combine it with everything else they find about you online into a profile, which they then resell.
The Roach Motel tactic is commonly seen in the ticketing industry. It’s when the design makes it very easy for you to get into a certain situation but then makes it hard for you to get out of it. When purchasing some types of tickets, places like Ticketmaster try to sneak a subscription to a magazine (typically Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly) into your basket via a trick question on the checkout page. They’ll also make the opt-out button microscopic, and if you don’t realize you subscribed to something else, it’s almost impossible to unsubscribe.
Sneak Into Basket
Somewhere in the purchasing journey, the site sneaks an additional item into your basket, often through the use of an opt-out radio button or checkbox on a prior page. Most people who shop online have probably experienced this one way or another.
We’ve all seen this one. Confirmshaming is making the user opt into something by shaming them if they don’t. This technique is popular on the web today, especially as a way to get users to sign up for a mailing list. Users see a pop-up with two options: the first in a bold color and a call to action, and the second in a subtle color, shaming them for not making ‘the right’ decision.
Finally, this dark pattern actually birthed a lawsuit. Friend Spam is when a product asks for your email or social media permissions under the pretense it will be used for a desirable outcome (e.g. finding friends), but then spams all your contacts in a message that claims to be from you.
The most famous example of this dark pattern was used by Linkedin, which resulted in them being fined $13 million dollars as part of a class action lawsuit in 2015. In the late 2000s there was a wave from LinkedIn who was spamming inboxes with dozens of follow-up emails through personal contacts to “expand our professional network”. The worst part was that they were virtually impossible to get out of. Thankfully, this pattern was recognized and presented in San Jose’s US District Court (Perkin v. LinkedIn, 2014) with the key issue being spam.
It served as a warning to other companies that misdirect users by using such tactics and dark UX patterns to artificially grow their products.
But this is not the only legislation in effect regarding Dark Patterns.
Last year, Senators introduced bipartisan legislation to ban multiple Dark Patterns.
The legislation targets what they say are deceptive tricks employed by websites and tech companies that are designed to mislead or confuse Internet users into giving away their rights and choices as consumers.
The bill is another salvo in a widening congressional effort to rein in the tech industry, whose data breaches and other privacy mishaps have prompted calls for tougher regulation of Silicon Valley.
This particular legislation, known as the DETOUR Act and introduced by Sens. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), zeroes in specifically on dark patterns
When it comes down to it, as a designer and a retailer, you have to ask yourself: do I want to gain followers, clicks, or sales because I tricked someone? If your answer is yes, then ethical companies most likely won’t want to do business with you. Moreover, most consumers today crave transparency and ethical consumption now more than ever, so if you’re using these patterns, chances are you’re damaging your reputation and losing customers.
Organic conversions should be what designers and business owners strive for. Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions or alternatives to dark patterns. Industry insiders like Gary Bunker, head of UX strategy at The Fore, have suggested that designers should have an ethical code of conduct where privacy, honesty, and respect should be the core elements.
Until then, it’s important as a consumer to be very cautious about where or what you’re clicking on when making purchases on the interwebs. Be wary of Dark Patterns, and steer clear of businesses that use them. As designers, having an internal ethical design code will not only gain loyal customers, but it will also save companies from potential lawsuits.