Dark Pattern Websites – Messing With Your Mind

Marketing has changed with the shift to online web sites for sales. But the psychology of marketing used by businesses is still to try to get you to purchase more or more than you want to. In a store, it might be by putting interesting things on display at the end of an aisle, or right next to the checkout counter.

Websites who use what are known as “dark patterns” are using legal, but perhaps less-than-ethical means to get you to spend. To explain the concept, here are some examples that I have experience with:

Hidden costs Example:

I once tried to purchase a book and it was offered three ways: by the author, by Amazon, and through an organization. The author’s website price appeared to be the cheapest, because Amazon’s price included the estimated taxes and shipping. The organization website also showed a price with flat rate shipping so it was also transparent.

Since it was the least expensive, I went to the author’s site and started the purchase. It wasn’t until just prior to finalizing the purchase that I got the shipping/taxes added. The total turned out to be much higher than the other two options. The author’s website takes advantage of the mental tendency to not want to abandon the purchase because of all the time spent going through the purchasing process.

Shaming Example:

Big button for Yes and small button for NoAn example of this is when you get a large button to click on and a much smaller opt-out option.  I experienced a website where purchasing was the default option.  I didn’t want to click on the big button to make the purchase but instead clicked on the much smaller opt-out option.  I then got a pop-up that said, “I like to pay full price for things” with a Continue button to get rid of the pop-up.  I internally cringed because I don’t like to pay full price for things if possible.  They were preying upon my frugal nature.

Sneak into Basket Example:

If you’ve ever interacted with GoDaddy, they almost specialize in this technique. When you purchase something, you have to continually deselect things to opt out of options they want to add to your cart.

One more common example is Adobe. If you go to their website to download the free Adobe Reader (needed to read PDF files), they always have automatically checked the option to download and install additional software. If you don’t see this and uncheck it, you’ll end up installing one or more other programs besides Acrobat Reader. These techniques focus on one’s impatience in looking things over carefully.

Not Illegal But Not Exactly Transparent Either

With the increase in subscriptions for services purchased on the web, dark patterns are used to make it difficult to cancel a subscription, or to purchase one-time without automatically getting a subscription you didn’t intend to purchase

As you can see from these examples, these techniques are not illegal, but they try to use your emotions and ego to try to get you to purchase things you might not really want to. With this increase in subscription models, there can be real financial impact of being taken in buy these techniques. This moves from just being an inconvenience of having to de-install unwanted software to actually paying for things you had no intention of purchasing. This financial impact is resulting in more people pushing back and saying that these are not just inconveniences, but are in the area of illegal activities such as bait-and-switch.

New Attention from Regulators

In 2021, these techniques are starting to get more attention from regulators and consumer watchdog groups. The FTC is one of groups who have identified that this is a significant problem and as a regulating and enforcement organization, they are planning to scrutinize these practices more closely.

Identifying dark pattern behaviors that are a suggestion from those that are manipulative is where the struggle is, and the FTC is using financial impact to try to draw that line. In addition, a coalition of non-profits and researchers is using the dark patterns tip line to collect examples of these types of behaviors on websites.

The good news is that these practices seem to be gaining more attention and may soon result in regulation limiting these practices. If you would like to learn more about dark patterns and to see more examples, the dark patterns website is a good resource.