What Are 'Dark Patterns'?
Have you ever tried to cancel your Amazon account?
Given how easy it is to buy from the site, you'd think closing an account would be just as straightforward.
But you’d be wrong.
It’s an enormously painful experience, so much so that most people give up halfway through.
Which is exactly what Amazon wants.
It’s also a classic example of a ‘dark pattern’.
Dark patterns are deceptive techniques used in UX design to trick or coerce people into taking specific actions online.
They encourage users to make purchases, sign up for services, or provide personal information without fully understanding or intending to do so.
These dark patterns achieve this by creating confusing or misleading interfaces.
They can be frustrating and unfair because they undermine our ability to make informed choices online.
So how do they work?
To answer this question, below are explanations of some commonly used ‘dark patterns’:
1. The ‘Bait and Switch’
The ‘bait and switch’ tactic attracts customers with an appealing offer, only to replace it with a less desirable or more expensive alternative once the customer has committed.
Low-cost airlines are frequently guilty of this tactic. They lure you in with a low advertised price and then charge you extra for hand luggage, to change your seat etc.
2. Fake Scarcity
‘Fake scarcity’ is when a website displays a bogus indication of limited supply or popularity to pressure the site visitor into completing an action.
Hotel booking websites often use this tactic to encourage you to book a room.
3. Forced Enrolment
‘Forced enrolment’ makes using a service dependent on accepting further conditions. However, the provision of that service doesn’t require them.
For example, some websites permit no further activities without signing in or creating an account, even though the desired content is already visible.
4. Countdown Timers
This dark pattern indicates to site visitors that a deal or discount will expire using a countdown timer.
Many online retailers use this tactic to create fake urgency encouraging users to purchase.
5. Checkbox Treachery
Some websites will make it unclear to customers how their contact information is being used by confusing opt-in or opt-out checkboxes.
Facebook famously got in trouble with this some years ago, which gave rise to the term ‘Privacy Zuckering’ named after its founder Mark Zuckerberg. It’s also one of the reasons you receive so many spam emails.
6. Sneak Into Basket
‘Sneak into basket’ is a dark pattern designed to trick customers into paying for additional items.
An extra item is slipped into a user’s order, usually by including a radio button or checkbox that the user has to uncheck to avoid the additional charge.
Travel companies often use this pattern to add services like trip insurance, which they must notice and opt out of.
7. Forced Continuity
‘Forced continuity’ is a tactic which automatically signs users up for subscription services after a free trial without explicit notification or consent.
When signing up for a free trial, the site first asks for your credit card information. However, the option to opt out of the paid subscription is hard to find or understand; this increases your chance of starting a paid subscription without even realising it.
8. Misleading Popup
The ‘misleading popup’ is a trick businesses use to collect email addresses.
The website shows a popup with a clear call to action button to sign up, but the option to decline the invite is barely visible.
9. Roach Motel
This tactic certainly wins the best-named ‘dark pattern’ award.
Just like a trap which cockroaches can easily enter but can't escape, a roach motel in UX design refers to situations where users can easily enter a particular state or perform an action, but it's challenging or confusing for them to return to a previous state or undo what they've done.
As the story at the start of this post alluded to, the way Amazon makes it easy for you to sign up but almost impossible to cancel.
If you found the above helpful, you might be interested in our UX Design course made in partnership with the world-renowned Parsons School of Design.
It’s carefully curated and made up of bite-sized modules you can complete at your own pace on any device.