Our insights into the world of web

Dark Patterns and how they trick us online

by Dan
Last updated: February 21st, 2020

Dark Patterns are the tricks that websites and apps use to push you into doing something that you didn’t mean to.

Sadly this is pretty common and you’ve probably fallen victim to these dark patterns tens if not hundreds of times over. I know I certainly have.

The term was originally coined by Harry Brignull back in 2010. Harry created a website named Dark Patterns, where he chronicles and shames the companies that adopt these tactics.

If you’re tight for time, or if you want to watch an awesome video on what Dark Patterns are, take a look at this short explainer video from Nerdwriter:

How do Dark Patterns work?

Think about how you browse the web, for the most part, you’re probably skimming web pages for the thing you’re looking for, or for something to catch your eye. This is where Dark Patterns take advantage of your quick assessment of the page and lead you to believe you are performing one action, the one you want to do, when really you are performing another, the one they want you to do.

This is usually done because the action you want to perform isn’t in the companies best interest, it’s in yours.

You’ve probably experienced this when you wanted to cancel a subscription online; the business knows that it costs them far less to retain you as a customer than it does to recruit a new one, so often they make it as difficult as they can for you to leave them.

Why are Dark Patterns used?

Pure and simple? It comes down to money. These tactics make the businesses that employ them plenty of money. In fact, they test really well. I’m not for one moment suggesting you do this for your own business, but if you were to A/B test a page for a product, you’ll very likely find that the page where you added in a few dark patterns converts much more than the one where you didn’t.

Dark Patterns in Action

One of the largest companies in the world, Amazon, makes it virtually impossible for you to delete your account with them. Creating one takes a matter of minutes, but deleting it? Well, that’s another thing altogether.

You’ll be familiar with the main screen

Amazon Dashboard

To delete your account you might think a logical place to look for the option would be within the “Account & Lists” menu just to the right of the search field.

When you open up that menu, this is what you see:

Amazon Accounts Dropdown

From this list of options, you might think the action you’re looking for is most likely within the “Your Account” option – but when you get through to that section, this is what you see:

Amazon Your account section

A ton of options, none of which are the one we are looking for.

Instead, you’ll need to scroll down to the very bottom of the page until you see the footer. Within the footer, you’ll see a small link that simply says “Help”. If you click that, this is where it leads:

Amazon Help Topics

Now you’re faced with a whole heap more options! My immediate thought was to scroll to the Search field and type “Delete Account” but that just lead me to even more options, none of which was anything to do with deleting my Amazon account.

As it turns out, you actually have to select the “Need More Help?” link you see right at the bottom of this section.

This brings up yet another menu, though there are only 4 options this time. None of which are anything to with deleting your account mind.

The only way to delete your account with Amazon is to select “Contact Us” and then plead with one of the representatives to Close and delete it for you, there is no way for you to perform this action yourself or any shred of evidence that this is even possible at all. And this is from one of the largest, most-respected companies in the world!

That’s a dark pattern, and you’ll have come across it many times over, but it’s not the only type out there. Websites and apps employ lots of different tactics to get you to do what they want.

Types of Dark Patterns

Fear of Missing Out (FOMO)

The FOMO tactic is one that is used almost everywhere you look in the travel industry; you better be quick or else you’ll miss out on this INCREDIBLE DEAL!

When Laura and I are browsing for our next adventures on travel sites like ebookers.com we often find ourselves faced with messages of “1 room left!” and “Hurry, 80% of hotels are fully booked”.

Ebookers Dark Pattern FOMO
ebookers.com FOMO tactics

And do you know what? Even though we know better, it works! The suggestion that we might miss out on the hotel we’d like or on this amazing deal, leads us to perhaps make a decision before we’re ready to.

Confirmshaming

This dark pattern has been around for some time now, but I’ve only just learned the name for it, and I love it – confirm shaming is exactly what it is!

You’ll probably have come across this when visiting an online store, a popup interrupts your browsing asking you to hand over your email address in exchange for a slight discount on your shopping. There’ll be a big, bright call to action to add your email and a much smaller, far more subtle link to opt-out, but not before the site gets in a little dig like “No thanks, I don’t like saving money”.

Here’s a confirm shame I particularly enjoy:

Tumblr Dark Pattern Confirmshaming
Shown when using an adblocker on Tumblr. Image courtesy of https://confirmshaming.tumblr.com/

And no, you’re not a bad person for using an Ad Blocker.

Roach Motel

We’ve actually been over this one already. Roach Motel is the very apt name given to websites or apps that make it difficult to opt-out, unsubscribe, or delete an account.

The Basket Sneak

The Basket Sneak is the tactic of sneaking a product into your basket (or even tricking you into doing it for them) at checkout. I know what you’re thinking; “nobody is going to fall for that!”, but erm, let’s just say it has caught me out more than once. Thanks, Sports Direct.

Sports Direct Dark Pattern The Basket Sneak
Image Credit: https://www.tone.co.uk/put-dark-illegal-art-sneak-basket/

Trick Questions

Thankfully, this one has been curtailed somewhat since the new GDPR legislation came into effect, but the Trick Questions Dark Pattern is the tactic of confusing you into opting-in to something when you think you’re opting out.

Take a look at this example from Currys.co.uk

Currys Dark Pattern Trick Questions
Image Credit: https://www.darkpatterns.org/types-of-dark-pattern/trick-questions

Hidden costs

How many times have you put something in your basket thinking it was one price, only to find at checkout that actually it’s that price plus this surcharge, plus this tax, plus this handling fee…?

In my experience, this mostly happens in the entertainment industry, particularly for theatre or concert goers.

Ticketmaster Dark Pattern Hidden Costs

Forced Continuity

We live in the subscription age. A very common tactic of subscription services is to offer a free trial but require your credit or debit card information upfront. Your Trial runs out and you forgot to tell the service that you don’t want to continue the subscription. Your card is automatically charged and you find yourself having paid for something you don’t want.

Disguised Ads

These are the sorts of ads that make you think you’re performing an action you want to do, but actually you’re clicking through to all sorts of dodgy goings-on. As a designer, I’ve been caught out by this a few times where disguised ads had me believing I’m selecting a button to download a font or graphic.

Disguised Ads Dark Pattern

Conclusion

Harry Brignull said that the only real way to fight these Dark Patterns is to educate ourselves about them because they’re really not going anywhere any time soon.

As business owners, we should ask ourselves if using Dark Patterns is really worth it. Is it worth alienating customers, or making them feel foolish or conned for the extra revenue now? Or is it better to let our customers enjoy an experience with more integrity and longer terms results?

Okay, that was a massively leading question, but you get my point.

If you think you’re using some Dark Patterns and you’d like some advice on how to use a friendlier approach, get in touch. We’d love to talk it over with you.

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Dark Patterns and how they trick us online

Dark Patterns are the tricks that websites and apps use to push you into doing something that you didn’t mean to. Here’s how they do it.

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