Dark patterns. You’ll soon hear much more about these techniques that manipulate consumers into decisions they might not ordinarily make. Think you can spot these manipulatives in online ads? It’s more complicated than you think. So much so that a group of data and marketing experts recently tackled the subject to define what dark patterns are and how to detect them.
What you don’t know about these tactics can cost you. That’s the main takeaway from a gathering in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on April 29th, where one expert stated, “The Genie is out of the bottle now.”
Defining These Patterns
Harry Brignull, a user experience (UX) specialist, first coined the name back in 2010. He then founded darkpatterns.org and launched a campaign to educate people.
So, what are these ominous-sounding patterns? One example would be a real estate website that hides the method to sign up without buying a premium subscription. A shipping firm makes its legal agreement harder to read by displaying only ten lines of copy at a time. That designer website you just visited pops up an opportunity to get 15% off by entering your email address. There’s a yes button and one that says, “No, I don’t like to save money. I’ll pay full price.”
These are all actual examples of dark patterns. Shaming consumers into coughing up private data is a significant, very effective element woven through the technique. Another is FOMO – the fear of missing out. Ever seen a countdown timer on a sales page? Or a pop-up indicating only six unicorn heads are in stock, and the item is in 24 other carts right now? These are dark pattern tactics.
When Shame Failed
Talk about irony. A decade ago, Brignull figured he could shame companies to drop these methods; the effort failed. Brignull’s website now displays a Wall of Shame Tricks exposed on that wall include these biggies:
- Donors who planned to make presidential campaign donations ended up on a page that defaulted to “Make this Monthly.” Numerous donors saw their bank accounts drained when they missed this dark pattern. The political group ended up refunding 10% of all money raised as a result.
- Social media giant Facebook redesigned Instagram’s home page to move the shop button to where a like icon had been. Perhaps they were counting on habit or muscle memory to make you buy more?
- Charitable givers were required to accept marketing notices if they wanted to donate in the company’s app.
- Business ads were hidden in review streams and designed them to look very similar to actual user reviews in order to confuse readers.
Have you ever wondered why a company website was so hard to use, or questions seemed so confusing? Found yourself wishing someone had beta tested that website before launch? Many of these infuriating features could be deliberate. Examples include:
- Using low contrast to hide features consumers seek, such as a white opt-out button on white background
- Hiding unsubscribe buttons or not listing that option at all
- Countdown timers to prompt immediate buys count down but never end
- Advertising a low price – perhaps for a hotel booking – but hiding taxes and fees that more than double the listed figure
- Websites that force you to download their app to unsubscribe from emails
If the list seems endless, it could be. But once you spot the dark tactics, you’ll notice them more quickly.
How To Detect
Like other consumer challenges, the more you know, the better protected you’ll be. Here are a few standard items to check:
- Watch for faded text that’s hard to read
- Don’t click buttons if there’s too much glare on the screen. Change locations.
- Use good light to detect light grey text or white on white features of the website design
- Scan for and read the (very) small print
- Read confusing questions several times
- Study mobile apps carefully since they’re more prone to these configurations
Make a note to check out Twitter’s #darkpatterns periodically to view the latest trickery. One flavor of this month is a firm that demands you OK marketing communications if you want to use their immunization planning tools.
Can We Stop This?
At April’s FTC gathering, speakers indicated that they’d like more regulation of these web design tactics, not less. These techniques have proliferated because they work. Research shows that online shoppers simply spend more when these tactics are in play. Even more disturbing, users are more likely to share info they didn’t intend to due to dark pattern manipulation, including personal information that companies will use in marketing efforts.
The impact of dark patterns is undeniable. It can hit teens and low-income adults harder than most. Given recent FTC actions, it’s likely that more enforcement is on the way. Panelists at FTC’s April summit agreed that more investigation is needed.
A Northeastern University expert added, “There’s no excuse for not allowing users to exit the service in the same way they signed up for it.”
“It’s all a layer deeper than what we pay attention to,” said a University of Florida communications professor.
A brighter light could help consumers navigate an online world of dark patterns and unfair tactics. Learn more and discuss this issue with anyone in your circle who might be highly vulnerable. With this data issue, the solution begins with each of us.
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