The doorbell rings and you get a package in your hand. You open it and see 20 black socks. Socks? But you didn't order them! Oh yes, you did. You just didn't realize. How you are manipulated by dark patterns in online marketing every day and how you can detect them. With examples of frequently used dark patterns.
What are Dark Patterns?
So last week you signed up for the ultimate socksaver subscription online without actually registering it. How did that happen? Quite simply, you were manipulated by a Dark Pattern in an online store.
Dark patterns are user interface or design elements or processes that companies use to manipulate consumer behavior. We are manipulated every day, not only online but also offline, and we don't even realize it. Or have you never wondered why there are only a few bottles left of that wine in the supermarket? Suddenly you decide to buy exactly that bottle. After all, it must be good if there are only a few bottles left... Right?
Many smart marketers have discovered these patterns for themselves some time ago and use them daily. Unfortunately, due to the success of some dark patterns, there are not less, but more of them. Dark patterns range from harmless to fraudulent and have equally harmless to fraudulent purposes.
A dark pattern can be a countdown to warn you that an offer is about to expire in an online store. But it can also be a barely visible notice when paying, indicating that you are now signing up for a sock subscription. A dark pattern doesn't even have to be a visual element. It can simply be an incredibly tedious cancellation process that prevents you from deactivating your subscription again.
Why Many Companies use Dark Patterns
Why should a company do something like this? Quite simply, because it works. A 2021 study of 1963 participants found that when harmless dark patterns were used, the number of people who completed a "dubious" service online was more than double. When fraudulent patterns were used, there were nearly four times as many.
Unfortunately, the interests of customers and companies are often not identical. The more clicks, registrations or purchases you can gain from the user, the better for the company's account. Good for business, bad for you. So when companies or marketing teams have to meet a certain workload and want to achieve it, they sometimes resort to desperate methods. And that includes dark patterns.
BUT: Dark patterns are good for achieving short-term goals (such as increasing sales), but in the long run they often harm the company's image.
How do Dark Patterns Work?
Now let's be honest, do you read every single line on a site? Most people don't. Most of the time, we skim and scan a text to get the context as quickly as possible. We don't just skim text, we skim user interfaces. Dark patterns take advantage of our brain's natural tendency to conserve energy.
Our brain is lazy. It wants to save as much energy as possible. That's exactly why it scans, skims, and doesn't read carefully. Already learned behavior patterns are called up again and again to make decisions. This is exactly where dark patterns come in. We quickly ignore the fine print and click on buttons without understanding what we are agreeing to.
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And this is not a fault of our brain at all, but completely understandable. We are overwhelmed with an enormous amount of information every day and have to make decisions all the time. Reading notifications, clicking buttons, accepting notices, responding to likes, writing comments... There's simply no time for informed decisions.
Every time we visit a site, we decide to click "accept all" without knowing what "all" even is. We just don't have the nerve to deal with "everything." And the big, blue "accept all" button is also designed to be much more eye-catching than the small, gray, unobtrusive button. Our attention is specifically directed and exploited for the benefit of others.
In summary: Our brain is completely overwhelmed. This is exactly why dark patterns work so well. Many of these techniques exploit the limited perception of us humans.
But When is a Design Pattern really "Dark"?
Once people have difficulty canceling expensive subscriptions or contracts and suffer financial, personal, or data-related disadvantages, a design pattern is called "dark."
For example, if a website has a visible button to sign up for a subscription, but the options to cancel this subscription are hidden somewhere, this is a dark pattern. Because having the option to subscribe for the next 10 years is usually not in the best interest of the customer, but of the company. Actually, the rule for dark patterns is quite simple: whenever only the company benefits, it is a dark pattern.
So this includes many things. Everyone knows the cookie banners on websites. Often the focus is on the button that lets you accept all cookies, while the area where you can protect your privacy is hidden. Who benefits from this? The company, of course, not the user. Therefore, a dark pattern.
To summarize: If a design pattern is not in the best interest of users, then it is usually a dark pattern.
Are Dark Patterns Legal?
Yes and no. It is often difficult to identify the boundaries between manipulation and fraudulent intent. National and European laws do not (yet) explicitly regulate the individual dark patterns (as of January 2023). However, anyone who has suffered damage due to dark patterns can theoretically try to claim damages.
Of course, there are laws like the GDPR or the TTDSG that more or less regulate the use of dark patterns, at least for data protection. As recently as 2022, for example, Google and Facebook got in trouble for their cookie banners. Both companies violated EU and French regulations by not allowing users to reject cookies in their cookie banner as easily as accepting them.
That cost Google 150 million Euros and Facebook 60 million Euros in fines. TikTok and Microsoft are facing similar penalties in France. Dark patterns can therefore not only significantly damage a company's image, but also its revenue.
Examples of Often Used Dark Patterns
Dark patterns are everywhere. A study conducted in Europe found that 97 percent of the most popular websites and apps used by consumers in the EU use at least one dark pattern.
These dark patterns come in a wide variety of forms. Sometimes they are harmless, sometimes they are deceitful and underhanded. To help you recognize and react to them in the future, I would like to introduce you to the best-known dark patterns:
"This accommodation has just been booked again!" Has it really been? Activity notifications are often artificially created cues that a purchase, booking or activity has just taken place. This creates artificial pressure by creating a sense of scarcity.
At the same time it triggers your feeling to want to do the same. If so many others do or have bought it, then the product must be good and you can use it without hesitation...
Our herd instinct is addressed here. Because we like to behave like others in order to simplify decisions. Unfortunately, these activity notifications are often not based on real data and information. Therefore - Dark pattern, because false information is presented here.
There is another type of activity notification. You're probably familiar with them: The little dots on social media platforms and apps that indicate unread messages. These notifications are meant to encourage users to take a quick look to see if they might have missed an important message after all. This is also a dark pattern. Especially when there is no news at all and the notifications are only used to lure the user back to the app or website.
Some apps even go so far as to display the dot continuously on the app icon to get even more attention. This type of dark pattern is particularly harmful because they create continuous notifications and put the user in a constant state of restlessness. This even goes so far that they can cause a kind of addictive behavior.
You're scrolling through a website and suddenly a pop-up advertising a newsletter pops up. You close it and after a few seconds, it pops up again. And again and again and again. This pattern is not considered dangerous, but it's annoying!
It's about doing something that's good for the company, but not necessarily for the users. This includes having to sign up for a newsletter to get a discount. The idea behind this is that the more often you repeat something, the more positively that thing is perceived. This principle comes from behavioral economics and is called the mere-exposure effect.
Unfortunately, however, this principle no longer works so well in today's world. That's because we've learned to ignore content that resembles advertising, is near advertising, or appears in places traditionally designated for advertising. And if there is one thing that looks like advertising, it's a pop-up.
Roach Motel and Forced Continuity
These two dark patterns are often combined. With the so-called Roach Motel, it is super easy to create an account or sign up for a trial subscription. However, if you want to delete the account or cancel the subscription, it is made especially difficult. To do that, you have to send an email, send a letter or call directly. The main thing is to create as big a hurdle as possible.
When logging in, the enforced continuity is then used in addition. Often, for example, you can sign up "for free", but you have to provide your credit card information when you sign up. This is usually a warning sign for forced continuity. The credit card information is used to charge for the actual subscription after the trial period has expired. This is often done without any indication of automatic billing.
The combination of the two patterns makes for a true Dark Pattern firework. Why Roach Motel? The name comes from the phrase "Roaches check in, but they don't check out!" i.e. "Cockroaches check in, but they don't check out". In this case, you can check in, but you're not supposed to check out.
Sneak Into Basket
When you store online, some stores use a sneaky tactic to add items to your basket without you realizing it. This is called a "sneak into basket".
Here's how it works: You add an item to your shopping cart and somewhere in the checkout process, a complementary product is automatically added. This product is mentioned, but the note is so inconspicuous that it's easy to miss. For example, if you're buying a laptop, an additional "sneak into basket" product might be a laptop sleeve. After all, you don't want to leave your laptop unprotected, do you?
If the item does attract attention, an additional trick is used: The price for the additional product is chosen so that it hardly hurts. An article for 1.99 € is hardly noticeable and you get something almost for free!
But that's not all. There's one trick more. The items don't necessarily have to be physical, but should simply give you a feeling of security. This could be insurance or an extended warranty, for example. You can find such things especially with technical items. These tricks are all linked to the "sneak into basket" pattern to make the product seem not so "sneaky" after all.
In this pattern, a product is presented with two options, one of which is preselected. However, this option is not necessarily advantageous for you. A great example is the "Savings Subscription" of a well-known, very large online retailer worldwide, whose name starts with the letter "A".
Instead of selling only a single product, two options are offered here. The single product and the "savings subscription". The savings subscription is partly set as a preselection, so that when you click on "add to cart", a subscription is concluded. And the socks come monthly, instead of only once. But then you also save one Euro on each purchase. 😏
Another example is the preselection for a newsletter subscription. For example, you only want to sign up for one service and during this process the "I want to receive the newsletter" is checked by default. The preselection pattern is the most commonly used dark pattern, along with the "hidden information" pattern.
In this pattern, important information and options are hidden or displayed in such a way that they are hardly noticeable. To see the information, you have to click somewhere, look very closely or actively search for it. Especially in e-mails you can see this pattern again and again.
Every newsletter mail must allow you to unsubscribe. But just because you have to have the option, doesn't mean you have to make it visible! So the "unsubscribe" link is simply made invisible or almost invisible in the email. Black font on a black background is rather hard to read, as is a very small font.
You can also find this pattern in cookie banners. Here you have to click on "all settings" or similar to reject the cookies. You can find this kind of misdirection on almost every site in some way.
Confirshaming - To be ashamed of choosing an option that is not in the provider's best interest. And then change your mind because of That. Most often, this pattern is found in newsletter signups or notification settings.
For example, if you don't want to sign up for a financial blog newsletter, you must first click "No, I want to stay poor." These types of texts range from "No, I don't want any offers" to "No, I prefer to bleed to death" or "I don't want to support a good cause".
Only two pieces available! Only four hours left until the offer ends! Only ten slots left for this workshop! Artificial scarcity is used to stimulate purchases. This can come in a variety of forms:
- Shortage of Time
- Shortage of Quantities
- Shortage of Access
We make decisions more quickly under pressure. The decision is then often made quite automatically only on the basis of scarcity. After all, no one wants to miss out on a great offer.
How to Protect Yourself from Dark Patterns
There is a way that you can actively protect yourself from dark patterns. You just need to understand one small thing. Our brain, according to Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, runs in two modes. The carefree mode and the performance mode.
In carefree mode, our brain tends to run on automatic. It doesn't read very carefully, uses familiar behavioral patterns and decides more on the basis of gut feeling in order to save energy. You may know this mode from driving a car. Here, after all, we don't think about how to accelerate or brake every second either. In carefree mode, we are very susceptible to dark patterns.
To detect and counteract dark patterns, you need to switch to performance mode. In this mode, you read carefully and think before you click on a button. Here, you pay attention to the fine print of attractive offers, recognize a preselection, and don't jump at every offer.
The Future of Dark Patterns
Dark patterns are nothing new. Companies have always tried to manipulate us by using a certain kind of language or imagery. The difference from the past is that our world, and with it the possibilities for manipulation, are more complex, faster, and much harder to control.
Voice assistants and smarthome devices are giving dark patterns new opportunities to creep into our everyday lives. The advancement of artificial intelligence will make dark patterns even more individual, inconspicuous and suitable for the masses. And augmented reality will provide companies with even more data to integrate dark patterns into reality as well.
The challenge is that we, as consumers, need to protect ourselves against Dark Patterns. Be aware that dark patterns exist. Once you recognize them, you can start actively resisting them. We must not be blinded by tempting offers and act online according to our gut feeling. Dark patterns are never about our advantage, but always about the advantage of the company.