The term “ dark pattern ” is not particularly widespread or known, and this means that many digital users still remain victims of online scams because they are deceive by the design of particular mobile apps or websites.
So let’s try to understand exactly what dark patterns are and how they can manipulate our actions and decisions while browsing online.
Translate into Italian as ” dark pattern “, the dark pattern can be define as a web interface carefully design to encourage the user to perform certain actions , such as buying products or subscribing to what at first glance seem convenient promotions. The term is relatively new and, to date, dark patterns are present on the web in incalculable quantities .
Where dark patterns are found and how they are made: some examples
As mention above, dark patterns are digital interfaces design to “convince” or deceive users to perform actions that, in conditions of full transparency, they would not perform . We can therefore consider them as a sort of digital coercion , which, moreover, seems to have increased exponentially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic – that is, in a phase that, for obvious reasons, has led people to surf online more than usual.
Where are dark patterns typically found ? Without prejudice to their presence in practically every type of website and mobile app, the most striking cases usually concern:
- E-commerce and travel booking : on these platforms, it is possible to push the user to subscribe to offers. Of which he is not really sure by communicating a false sense of urgency. Messages such as “other X people are keeping an eye on this flight / this room / this hotel”. Rather than “this price could go up in a few minutes” are common strategies to accomplish this.
- App : During the download phase the user can be prompted to accept extremely dense confused communications permissions. And disclaimers before being able to access the product they want.
- Data collection in the opt-out phase : it may happen that some choices are given extreme prominence and very little prominence to others. An example is to make the subscription option for a newsletter more visible and pre-flagged, rather than the authorization to receive commercial communications. In this case, the goal is to favor permission marketing, almost forcing it.
- When subscribing to services : through graphics and paths that make it extremely difficult to unsubscribe from the service itself.
As for the typical black pattern strategies , the most common includes:
- Credit card requests for free trials; already during the creation of an account, and despite. The fact that the user has decided to subscribe to the free trial period for a specific digital product or service. The data will be requested from the credit card. If the user does not remember to unsubscribe within the set deadlines (which tends to happen quite frequently). He will be automatically charge for a monthly subscription and will find that terminating. The service is not as easy as it seems.
- Roach Motel : it is a black pattern mode that is linked to the previous one. And which in fact makes it extremely complicate for the user to suspend a service. That no longer wishes to be provide. The internet user will switch from link to link, without ever identifying the option that actually leads to the cancellation of their account. In fact, this black pattern mode is aimed at exhausting and disorienting the user. Through cancellation procedures that are so long. And complex as to bring a slice of the user to give up, keeping the service active. In summary, the Roach Motel is therefore an online service. That is easy to sign up for but extremely complex to discontinue.
- Misleading popup : It is the classic misleading popup that we all face on a daily basis when we surf the net. Typically, this popup features a large Call To Action button in front of an almost invisible close button. In some cases, users will end up clicking the action button thinking there is no other way to continue browsing the site.
- One more product in the cart : inserted, however, in such a way that it is almost impossible to notice. This process usually takes place during the checkout phase and involves a product that is so small and inexpensive that the user may not notice it. It is almost always a non-physical item, such as an extension of the warranty, insurance or subscription (for a fee) to a service that the user has not requested.
- Confirmshaming : the black pattern strategy will try in this case to cause discomfort or shame in the user who decides not to perform a certain action. A few examples? The message “Are you sure you don’t want to subscribe to the service? X / Y / Z need you! ” or a button that reads:“ No, thanks, I’m not interest in contributing to reforestation ”and so on.
Dark patterns work because they exploit our cognitive frailties
When exposed rationally, how dark patterns work seems pretty easy to understand and avoid. However, these deceptive and manipulative interfaces continue to thrive on the web and many users fall into the trap.
The reason is inherent in the fact that the “dark paths” exploit our cognitive frailties and human psychology. Acting as a trigger on cognitive biases that sometimes we don’t even know we have. In fact, these interfaces are design with the utmost care to disorient and manipulate people’s minds. And push them to make decisions that would almost certainly be avoid. If all information were place more clearly, directly and transparently .
In e-commerce this type of strategy seems to work very well. Almost certainly because it touches emotional strings that condition the purchase. The desire, the urgency, the actual need to obtain a certain product at a certain time. The dark pattern will therefore, in this case, have an easy life and a good example is represent by the case of Commerce Planet. An American e-commerce platform that had structured its design in such a way as to encourage users. To subscribe to a payment plan. monthly. The case then ended with a compensation to users of almost $ 750,000.
The e-commerce giant, Amazon , has also been accus of practicing black patterns. In this case by the Norwegian Consumers ‘ Association. Which believes that this strategy is being implement. To make it extremely difficult to cancel the Prime service.
A curiosity : in the USA, a country where dark patterns are extremely use, there is discussion about the possibility of creating a law that prohibits the design, modification or manipulation of a user interface with the aim of obscuring, subverting or compromising the process of choice of the user to provide their personal data. The Cybersecurity webzine has dedicate an interesting study to the relationship between GDPR and dark patterns that highlights the ethical and regulatory aspects of the problem.
The consequences of dark patterns for the user and for the brand
The consequences of using dark pattern strategies are twofold. Ie they affect both the user and the brand behind the website that implements them.
As for the former, they will clearly find themselves carrying out actions that are based on perceptual deception. Or on the subtle exploitation of a cognitive bias, with the result of spending money. On products and services that they did not want and, almost certainly, of turning to others. More correct and transparent platforms.
As for the companies that use black patterns , at stake is their reputation , the perception of the brand. The trust and loyalty of consumers. In fact the brand will be face with a damage to its image. To a loss of credibility and numerous negative reviews on the web.
Since black patterns are often used to generate a sales or subscription boost (with related data acquisition) in the short to medium term , it is perhaps worth asking whether the game is really worth the candle , and whether the reputational impact. that will undoubtedly follow such digital behaviors can be tolerated in the face of a relative increase in profit.