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Are “Dark Patterns” Manipulating You Online? (and should you use them)

May 18, 2021

Does this sound familiar? You sit down at your computer to read an article on a website and are instantly bombarded with popups, ads, and sign-up forms. You end up on a website for a product or service you are interested in, but you find yourself navigating a churning sea of double negatives and hidden prices. Or you are finally ready to unsubscribe from a paid service only to find that the only way to cancel is by contacting a customer service representative.

These are all “dark patterns,” mild to aggressive forms of manipulation designed to get more money or attention out of you.  

Harry Brignull coined the term in 2010 to describe any less than honest way of manipulating users online. A study by Jamie Luguri and Lior Jacob Strahilevitz, published in March 2021, shows just how effective these techniques are. It found that aggressive strategies increased sign-ups by up to 371%, sometimes without a measurable increase of anger in the participants. 

Perhaps even more shocking is that price point didn’t discourage study participants from falling for a dark pattern vs. those confronted with a lower price. Traditional wisdom would have you think a higher price would produce a bit of customer discernment, but it had no such effect. 

Be On the Lookout

Dark patterns are essential to recognize because you can avoid manipulation if you see how they play out while using the web. 

Here are a few of the dark patterns I see most often:

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  • Trick Questions: This is the classic double negative, “Please do not send me updates and emails.” The user has to check this box to opt-out. But then, right after it is another checkbox that signifies opt-in, “Please send me details from partners.” One checked box opts out, one opts in. 
  • Hidden Costs: You have the product in your cart and head to check out, and boom, you get slapped in the face with additional fees. These are often handling charges, delivery fees, or service fees.
  • Confirmshaming: Using shame to get compliance. Usually, this is an opt-out on a popup. An example from a newsletter sign-up, “No thanks, I don’t want to stay up to date.”
  • More here: Types of Dark Patterns

By keeping a wary eye out, you can avoid falling into these traps. However, I have to draw a line – not every attempt at marketing is a dark pattern. For example, I have seen “social proof” used as an example of a dark pattern; this is not always the case. 

Social proof is when a marketer shows you who else is buying their product to encourage you to buy. It plays on your FOMO by making you feel like you are missing out if you do not purchase too. A 2019 study found that some businesses use fake people to show social proof – this is a dark pattern. But showing genuine actions of other real users is just good marketing. 

I do not believe the consumer is helpless in deciphering marketing. The average person is not a sheep just waiting to be led to the marketers slaughtering floor. Marketing intrinsically manipulates a person by making them aware of something they didn’t know existed and telling them how it will impact them. It becomes a dark pattern when it is more about tricking the consumer and less about displaying features and benefits. It becomes a dark pattern when it is dishonest. It is a dark pattern when it is opaque instead of transparent. 

Should You Use Dark Patterns on Your Website

Dark patterns look attractive in the Jamie Luguri and Lior Jacob Strahilevitz study; who doesn’t want more profit!? If you can increase conversions by 371% at will, you can print money.

Not so fast. One outcome was expected: repeated exposure to aggressive dark patterns increased anger in users. Do you want your customers to be angry with you? With your brand? I should hope not. 

It would be best if you took the principles over the practice. In other words, make a study of what drives users to convert when faced with dark patterns and create a similar but positive version on your website. Don’t resort to intentional dishonesty and confusion – the goal isn’t to trick consumers into becoming customers. The goal is legitimate buy-in. Or, as Seth Godin would say, enrollment. 

Here are some principles I take away from dark patterns:

  • FOMO: People hate to miss out. Use actual social proof to display that others are enrolled. 
  • Negative Consequences: It is okay to show that not using your product or service may have adverse effects, but don’t use it as a choice for a call to action. No one likes to be made a fool by simply pressing a button. It is best to show this in your marketing copy where the user can digest it. Remember, clarity over confusion.
  • Sneak into Basket: This dark pattern involves adding items to a user’s basket without consent to try to sneak additional purchases. It’s a dirty trick, but helpful cart add-ons are not. Take that add-on item and ask the user to add it themselves with a well-timed popup. If it is important to them, you are helping, not hurting, by asking. 

You want intentional, qualified customers who care about what you offer. You will never get that long-term with dark patterns. Your goal as a marketer is to convince the consumer that they need your product, not to trick them into it!

Stay aware of the dark pattern traps around the web when you are the user. And if you are using them on your website, consider employing similar principles without the tricks. 

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