‘Dark patterns’ aren’t supernatural digital forces plaguing our websites, as the term might suggest — don’t worry about an internet-based apocalypse (just yet).
However, dark patterns are evil in varying degrees (some even illegal), and often very deliberately, used on many types of websites and apps where either money or data is transmitted from user to company.
Renowned User Experience (UX) consultant Harry Brignull originally coined the term:
“A dark pattern is a user interface carefully crafted to trick users into doing things they might not otherwise do…”
And would you believe it — even big brands like Microsoft have been guilty of such sins in the past (more details in a moment).
This guide will delve into 5+ examples of wicked dark patterns across the web, so your business doesn’t make the same unsavory mistakes, and neglect customers in the process.
When *intentionally* applied, dark patterns almost force a number of selfish, profit-focused objectives:
1). Make visitors spend in the first place
2). Make visitors spend more
3). Make visitors hand over extra personal details than otherwise necessary
And, among other greedy ‘KPIs’:
4). Make visitors agree to statements or conditions that are purposely complex (or even somewhat hidden)
Apocalypse aside, this is definitely something to worry about.
I would typically use the wording ‘encourage visitors’, but the deceptive characteristics of dark patterns really do ‘make visitors’ take actions — even those they don’t plan to take.
These actions will almost always be identified as bottom line conversions to the business coercing its website users.
Not to mention the absence of morals, it’s a hollow approach that doesn’t pay (in the end):
(Infographic Source: McKinsey)
“60% of customers who experienced unfriendly service would take their business elsewhere.”
Inherently unfriendly dark patterns may fool some, but returns won’t ever be long-lasting — plus, the negative effects on reputation and affinity may ultimately be the undoing of a business.
It’s 2018; the age of the customer! And our younger generations are more savvy than ever before.
Time to change, if your website is exploiting any questionable conversion tactics…
With this in mind, let’s dive into some of the best (by that I mean, worst) examples of cunning dark patterns designed to inadvertently convert visitors.
Dark Pattern #1: Baiting & Switching
Originating from black hat SEO in the early digital days (where a high-ranking, high search volume page in Google would be manipulatively switched with different content), this (now EU- illegal) UX dark pattern follows the same concept…
1). Display an alert, 2). Prompt user actions — then 3). After those actions are taken, provide a completely different result than expected.
Remember I mentioned that Microsoft had used dark patterns in the past?
Well, here we are. And it truly is a shocking in-app example, especially from such a huge corporation…
Just a small number of years ago, older-generation Microsoft users were greeted with what seemed to be a typical popup:
As usual, if you didn’t want to upgrade, you’d simply click the ‘X’ in the top right corner, right?
Clicking the ‘X’ actually began the process of upgrading user PCs to Windows 10!
Aside from this ridiculously aggressive and deceptive popup feature, the ‘OK’ button actually adds to the trick, as it is next to the ‘Upgrade Now’ wording…
That said, it may appear that both ‘Upgrade Now’ and ‘OK’ lead to exactly the same result (consenting to upgrade) — further encouraging users to click on the ‘X’.
Super, super crafty. Actually, just outright terrible!
The intent was so bad and malware-like, Microsoft ended up with the threat of facing 100 users in court, who were looking to sue for a total of $5M.
Let’s check out a slightly more subtle approach of what could be considered to be baiting and switching on the web, also perhaps with a hint of misdirection (coming up next)…
[I actually bought a lottery ticket to present this to you! Nothing to do with the chance of winning, of course…]
This particular gambling website makes it very easy to spend money. Possibly, a little too easy at times.
I selected my lucky numbers:
Then, entered my payment details and hit ‘Pay Now’:
I was then greeted with this popup, immediately after paying:
Breaking it down:
- I’ve just paid and my transaction is supposedly over — this is a point where attention to detail and friction is likely very much reduced
- The big, glaring red button and the ‘4 bets free’ almost had me click, without much of a thought
- At first glance, it appears that pressing the big button either 1) Gains 4 bets, without charge — or — 2) Confirms my initial purchase, with my numbers (already selected) cleverly shown above
It’s not until I took another moment to see the smaller, lightly-shaded print underneath the button, that I realized what was actually being asked of me:
A one-click paid subscription, where payment is taken in advance.
Although this may not be as devious as the in-app Microsoft example, it still leaves me (as a customer), feeling like this website doesn’t keep its customers’ best interests at heart.
Would you be inclined to remain loyal?
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
- Clearly label CTAs and double-confirm any button click (especially where additional payment is concerned!)
- Plainly unbundle past / future user actions to avoid confusion and bitter after-tastes
- Use visible fonts that explain the result of user actions, as opposed to a sly combination of colors and sizes
- Stick to widely-recognized web conventions (i.e. clicking the ‘X’ button actually does what customers suppose it to)
Dark Pattern #2: Misdirection & Forced Continuity
A core component of many dark patterns, misdirection works similarly to how a magician distracts attention away from what he or she is really doing behind the scenes, in order to focus all eyes on the grand illusion.
As in the examples above — misdirection is operated through the use of vivid color, sneaky design and muddled wording.
Forced continuity does exactly what it says on the tin: Making it as difficult as humanly possible for users to cancel subscriptions, uninstall or leave — while it’s exceptionally easy to continue payment (or payment even goes unnoticed, until customers check their banks in horror — also now outlawed within the EU).
Neither dastardly tactic could be covered without including this (I’d suggest to be) worst ever in-app example of such a common combo — this time, from PC ‘cleaning’ software provider, IObit — as humorously tweeted by Riyadh Gordon:
Breaking it down:
- ‘IObit Uninstaller 7 is available!’ … Why on earth would you need to download a new uninstaller anyway? That may well be the question asked, although this PC program-cleansing product is cleverly named, ‘Uninstaller’.
- Furthermore, the prompt is to download a new version of the complete software, although the user’s first intention is to uninstall the software for good!
- ‘IObit Uninstaller won’t be installed if you cancel it. Continue to install?’
Ermmm … WHAT?! [Now, even I’m confused…]
- And if that wasn’t enough to baffle your brains — we have two brightly-colored buttons, supposedly leading to exactly the same result = Installing the new software!
Let’s hope the ‘X’ and ‘Cancel’ buttons actually close the window…but even then, it seems the user is still stuck with the initial software.
I would agree with Flavio Amenza — This is deemed to be purely a** hole design!
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
- Use coordinated colors, clear wording and design — while always offering customers a convenient ‘way out’ of any process they initiate, or any you initiate for them
- Create ultra-smooth transitions — no matter whether customers wish to upgrade, downgrade, buy more, buy less — or jump ship to a competitor
- Make it so easy for customers to leave you, they actually end up loving you more (a connection that may subsequently keep them onboard)
Think that sounds crazy?
— I recently decided to switch my accounting software provider, only to find the website returned an error message when I attempted to cancel my subscription.
Potentially just a bug (we can hope). But that wasn’t the only barrier to my exit…
I then discovered the software doesn’t allow a business user to download all historic accounts, VAT and tax filings in one click — far from it, in fact.
To extract these essential documents (before your software account is permanently deleted in just a couple of weeks after cancellation), it forces you to separately download 5+ necessary documents for every recorded year, and each location of download is in a different place that isn’t at all quick to navigate to!
After this time-sapping fiasco and multiple emails back and forth, I eagerly awaited getting started with my new software provider.
Obviously, it’s an experience I wouldn’t recommend to anybody (with hindsight). Zero points for customer advocacy!
Now, an example of 100% opposite company culture:
— Not so long ago, I planned to switch ecommerce payment service provider to what I thought was a more robust, advanced piece of kit.
I’d enjoyed a great rapport with the existing company (Quaderno), so openly told the team my intentions and reasoning via email.
They suggested a personal video call, and helped me decide which provider was best for my specific needs, in an unbiased manner — whether this resulted in me staying with them, or leaving for their competitor!
Because of their ethics and strong commitment to caring support, I stayed.
Not so crazy, right?
Translate the attitude of such an empathetic strategy into your website interface, and you will have customers coming back for more, each and every time.
Dark Pattern #3: Shaming & Guilt-Tripping
Speaking of ethics, would you say it’s a good idea to make your website visitors feel bad for not signing up to your newsletter, or downloading your latest eBook?
Unfortunately, many would say yes! So it seems…
‘Confirmshaming’ as it’s known, is a type of dark pattern that does exactly that — and it’s rife in pop-ups today.
Oh dear. So not downloading is definitely a bad choice, and by not clicking means bad choices are what the visitor likes to make?
It seems the site has now reconsidered its approach (somewhat) since the above was shared across the web:
Moving onto guilt-tripping!
This one is of particularly bad taste — due to the cute bear with a tear in its eye and more blatantly — the ‘I am a bad person’ link (also deliberately not in bold or highlighted red by the website designers).
(Graphic Source: Confirmshaming via Tumblr)
Here are a few more examples of each to make you laugh, cry and wince in sheer disbelief, all at the same time:
(Graphic Sources: Confirmshaming via Tumblr)
Yep. Still happening. In 2018!
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
- Be sincere and treat any user action with the same level of respect
- Apply non-intrusive pop-ups that are actually personalized and relevant to the customer journey
- Use verbs and action-based sentences that are emotion-neutral and never negatively-charged
Of course, emotions are manipulated by brands every day — whether noticed by customers or not.
And there are certain forms of manipulation that are far worse than others…
Dark Pattern #4: Scaremongering
Probably the most pertinent and recognizable examples of this on the web are (you might have guessed) — anti-virus software providers!
First, let’s glance at the meaning of this dark tactic:
Scaring people into downloading software isn’t exactly elegant, and much of the time, unjust.
It can be likened to all types of insurance not obligatory by law — we buy it ‘just in case’.
Some companies play on this scenario of ‘what could happen’, and strike fear into their website visitors:
It becomes much more aggressive in-app (a similar trend shown in earlier examples):
And check out this face-palm-worthy case of scaremongering via the infamous McAfee:
(Graphic Source: Reddit)
This isn’t the only high-profile vertical filled to the brim with scare tactics…
How about dentists and products in this industry?
You may have seen Corsodyl adverts on TV where the lady actor rather nauseatingly spits blood into her sink as a result of gum disease. (If you haven’t, you can watch it here, if you really want to).
Beautiful, when sitting down to eat dinner, by the way!
Well, the website also reinforces this fear:
Aptly described by Campaign:
“As marketers know all too well, ‘Project Fear’ won’t win hearts or minds…”
You won’t witness this methodology from companies truly focused on heartfelt brand loyalty.
It really isn’t worth it in the long run:
(Source: Money Saving Expert)
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
- Rather than back visitors into a corner, provide them with solid information that well-informs and empowers them to make their own decisions
- Attract customers by providing rich value in the form of content, support, pricing — and truly helpful products / services
- Keep language positive and direct your overall brand message in a similar fashion (‘Use our products and enjoy the results’ instead of ‘Buy now, or this will happen to you.’)
Can it get even worse than scaremongering?
I’m ‘afraid’ so…
Dark Pattern #5: Surprise! (Costs)
Another (now EU-illegal) tactic that remains widespread in the U.S. and beyond — unexpected costs that creep into customer carts at the very end of long-winded transactions.
In other words, the demons of ecommerce design!
The best U.S. example of this is found on Harry Brignull’s website.
I went through the process of buying flowers myself and found the checkout had changed to some extent — there are a couple more psychological twists to demonstrate for you:
$34.99 seems to be cool. Not even a hint of any additional costs.
[Well, that would be the general feeling, until you go through a 6-step checkout process!]
During the 5th step, the customer is asked to complete the order by entering their credit card and address details:
The customer finally reaches the last step on checkout — it’s been a little convoluted, but they made it!
…Only to find an additional $17.98 has been added to the order for standard delivery and (this is the killer): ‘Care & Handling’.
If that wasn’t shifty enough, take a look at the ‘marketing emails’ tick box that’s automatically opted-in (also soon illegal in Europe under The GDPR):
And we’re not done just yet…
While I conducted my own experiments on the site’s checkout process, I discovered it has since become more cunning:
Breaking it down:
- Apparently, I received ‘total savings of $18.98’
- The original price shown for my particular order was $49.99, at the very beginning
- The bold green font shows savings (of costs unexpectedly introduced!) to make me feel special (while also pushing a sense of urgency) — ensuring I follow through with the sale
To make matters worse, I had to take a good hard look at the calculations to actually make sense of the new surprise figures!
WHAT TO DO INSTEAD
- Make prices and individual unit costs so obvious that any customer would have no trouble understanding, even after sipping rum
- Always be upfront with pricing; laws against sinister dark patterns will likely extend globally in future
- Keep checkouts simple, painless and obvious — confusion is enough to make any customer abandon their cart for good
And if you wish to browse all the other types of naughty dark pattern, you can do so right here.
Just remember this conclusive line from the UX master himself:
“Usage alone is cheap. A good brand is liked. A great brand is loved and respected. You’ll never reach that point if you use dark patterns.”
(Source: Harry Brignull via The Verge)