Dark patterns: is your website tricking people?

April 2022

Why should we be concerned about dark patterns?

Do you ever feel like a website or app has been designed to manipulate you into doing things you really don’t want to do? I bet we all have. Welcome to the murky world of ‘dark patterns’.

This term was originally penned in 2010 by user experience specialist, Harry Brignull, who defines dark patterns as “features of interface design crafted to trick people into doing things they might not want to do and which benefit the business”.

Whenever we use the internet, businesses are fighting for our attention and it’s often hard for them to get cut through. And we often don’t have the time or inclination to read the small print, we just want to achieve what we set out to do.

Business can take advantage of this. Sometimes they make it difficult to do things which should, on the face of it, be really simple. Like cancel or say no. They may try to lead you down a different path that suits their business better and leads to higher profits.

These practices are in the spotlight, and businesses could face more scrutiny in future. Sometimes dark patterns are deliberate, sometimes they may be accidental.

What are dark patterns?

There are many interpretations of dark patterns and many different examples. Here’s just a handful to give you a flavour – it’s by no means an exhaustive list.

  • ‘Roach Motel’ – this is where the user journey makes it easy to get into a situation, but hard to get out. (Perhaps ‘Hotel California’ might have been a better name?). For example, when it’s easy to sign up to a service, but very difficult to cancel it because it’s buried somewhere you wouldn’t think to look. And when you eventually find it, you still have to wade through several messages urging you not to cancel.
  • FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) – this for example is when you’re hurried into making a purchase by ‘urgent’ messages showing a countdown clock or alert messages saying the offer will end imminently.
  • Overloading – this is when we’re confronted with a large number of requests, information, options or possibilities to prompt us to share more data. Or it could be used to prompt us to unintentionally allow our data to be handled in a way we’d never expect.
  • Skipping – this is where the design of the interface or user experience is done is such a way that we forget, or don’t think about, the data protection implications. Some cookie notices are designed this way.
  • Stirring – this affects the choices we make by appealing to our emotions or using visual cues. For example, using a certain colour for buttons you’d naturally click for routine actions – getting you into the habit of clicking on that colour. Then suddenly using that colour button for the paid for service, and making the free option you were after hard to spot.
  • Subliminal advertising – this is the use of images or sounds to influence our responses without us being consciously aware of it. This is banned in many countries as deceptive and unethical.

Social engineering?

Some argue the ‘big players’ in search and social media have been the worst culprits in the evolution and proliferation of dark patterns. For instance, the Netflix video ‘The Social Dilemma’ argued that Google and Facebook have teams of engineers mining behavioural data for insights on user psychology to help them evolve their interface and user experience.

The mountain of data harvested when we search, browse, like, comment, post and so on can be used against us, to drive us to behave they way they want us to – without us even realising. The rapid growth of AI could push this all to a whole new level if left unchecked.

The privacy challenge

Unsurprisingly there’s a massive cross-over between dark patterns and negatively impacting on a user’s privacy. The way user interfaces are designed can play a vital role in good or bad privacy.

In the EU, discussions about dark patterns (under the EU GDPR) tend to concentrate on to how dark patterns can be used to manipulate buyers to give their consent – and point out consent would be invalid if it’s achieved deceptively or not given freely.

Here are some specific privacy related examples.

  • Tricking you to installing an application you didn’t want, i.e. consent is not unambiguous or freely given.
  • When the default privacy settings are biased to push you in a certain direction. For example, on cookie notices where it’s much simpler to accept than object, and can take more clicks to object. Confusing language may also be used to manipulate behaviour.
  • ‘Privacy Zuckering’, is a term used for when you’re tricked into publicly sharing more information about yourself than you really intended to. Named after Facebook’s co-founder & CEO, but it isn’t unique to them, for example, LinkedIn have been fined for this.
  • When an email unsubscribe link is hidden within other text.
  • Where more screen space is given to selecting options the business wants you to take, and less space for what might be more preferable options the customer. For example, e.g. the frequency of a subscription, rather than a one-off purchase.

Should businesses avoid using dark patterns?

Many will argue YES! Data ethics is right at the heart of the debate. Businesses should ask themselves if what they are doing is fair and reasonable to try to encourage sales and if their practices could be seen as deceptive. Are they doing enough to protect their customers?

Here are just a few reasons to avoid using dark patterns:

  • They annoy your customers and damage their experience of your brand. A survey by Hubspot found 80% of respondents said they had stopped doing business with a company because of a poor customer experience. If your customers are dissatisfied, they can and will switch to another provider.
  • They could lead to higher website abandon rates.
  • Consent gathered by manipulating consumer behaviour is unlikely to meet the GDPR consent requirements, i.e. freely given, informed, explicit and unambiguous. So your processing could turn out to be unlawful.

Can these effects happen by mistake?

Dark patterns aren’t always deliberate. They can arise due to loss of focus, short-sightedness, poorly trained AI models, or a number of other factors. However they are more likely to occur when designers are put under pressure to deliver on time for a launch date, particularly when commercial objectives are prioritised above all else.

Cliff Kuang, author of “User Friendly”, says there’s a tendency to make it easy for users to perform the tasks that suit the company’s preferred outcomes. The controls for limiting functionality or privacy controls can sometimes be an afterthought.

What can businesses do to prevent this?

In practice it’s not easy to strike the right balance. We want to provide helpful information help our website / app users to make decisions. It’s likely we want to ‘nudge’ them in the ‘right’ direction. But we should be careful we don’t do this in ways which confuse, mislead or hurry users into doing things they don’t really want to do.

It’s not like the web is unique in this aim (it’s just that we have a ton of data to help us). In supermarkets, you used to always see sweets displayed beside the checkout. A captive queuing audience, and if it didn’t work on you, a clear ‘nudge’ to your kids! But a practice now largely frowned upon.

So how can we do ‘good sales’ online without using manipulation or coercion? It’s all about finding a healthy balance.

Here’s a few suggestions which might help your teams:

  • Train your product developers, designers & UX experts – not only in data protection but also in dark patterns and design ethics. In particular, help them recognise dark patterns and understand the negative impacts they can cause. Explain the principles of privacy by design and the conditions for valid consent.
  • Don’t allow business pressure and priorities to dictate over good ethics and privacy by design.
  • Remember data must always be collected and processed fairly and lawfully.

Can dark patterns be regulated?

The proliferation of dark patterns over recent years has largely been unrestricted by regulation.

In the UK & Europe, where UK & EU GDPR are in force, discussions about dark patterns have mostly gravitated around matters relating to consent – where that consent may have been gathered by manipulation and may not meet the required conditions.

In France, the CNIL (France’s data protection authority) has stressed the design of user interfaces is critical to help protect privacy. In 2019 CNIL took the view that consent gathered using dark patterns does not qualify as valid freely given consent.

Fast forward to 2022 and the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) has released guidelines; Dark patterns in social media platform interfaces: How to recognise and avoid them.

These guidelines offer examples, best practices and practical recommendations to designers and users of social media platforms, on how to assess and avoid dark patterns in social media interfaces which contravene GDPR requirements. The guidance also contains useful lessons for all websites and applications.

They remind us we should take into account the principles of fairness, transparency, data minimisation, accountability and purpose limitation, as well the requirements of data protection by design and by default.

We anticipate EU regulation of dark patterns may soon be coming our way. The International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP) recently said, “Privacy and data protection regulators and lawmakers are increasingly focusing their attention on the impacts of so-called ‘dark patterns’ in technical design on user choice, privacy, data protection and commerce.”

Moves to tackle dark patterns in the US

The US Federal Trade Commission has indicated it’s giving serious attention to business use of dark patterns and has issued a complaint against Age of Learning for its use of dark patterns for their ABC Mouse service.

Looking at state-led regulations, in California modifications to the CCPA have been proposed to tackle dark patterns. The Colorado Privacy Act also looks to address this topic.

What next?

It’s clear businesses should be mindful of dark patterns and consider taking an ethical stance to protect their customers / website users. Could your website development teams be intentionally or accidentally going too far? Its good practice to train website and development teams so they can prevent dark patterns occurring, intentionally or by mistake.