Maybe you put a gadget in your online shopping cart and receive a push notification on your phone, urging you to check out before the item goes out-of-stock. Or maybe there’s a huge banner on your favorite furniture store’s website, warning you that the brand is going out of business—so hurry up and buy everything that’s on sale.
But then, weeks later, you discover the gadget is still in stock. And that damn furniture store is still open. What’s going on?
This is the world of “dark patterns,” or deceptive design practices that websites use to trick you into spending more money. A new study by a team of researchers from Princeton and the University of Chicago points out that of 11,000 shopping websites they surveyed through an automated tool, they found 1,800 instances of dark patterns.
Think about the websites you love to use. Maybe you hate Facebook because it feels bogged down by ads, posts, and notifications, but you love Instagram because it’s streamlined with just one feed that appears in a uniform pattern: square images with a little bit of text. User interface designers are the folks behind the scenes, creating the look and feel of a website for the users to navigate around.
A user interface designer (or UI designer) is neither the good nor the bad guy; these people are simply doing what their title suggests, while juggling the needs of a client or employer. Their job is to get you from click A to click B on a site to accomplish some specific goal (in this case, making more purchases). They’re left to the devices of whoever is in charge. So if that client says they want a redesign of the basket on a commerce website, change will come for that little icon.
Dark patterns are essentially UI design choices that are meant to lead users to perform a targeted action: buy things. Harry Brignull, a user experience specialist who helped cofound the Dark Patterns website—which documents instances of these design choices—first coined the term in 2010. Brignull and Alexander Darlo, who edits the website, compile examples of these deceptive tactics both to raise awareness and to shame the companies.
These guys are thorough, partly because a huge network of Twitter users act as internet vigilantes, tweeting examples of dark patterns at the duo, which are then featured on the site’s “Hall of Shame.” Here are some of the latest examples:
After hunting down the tiny link I was sure I had cancelled my @LinkedIn premium subscription last month. Turns out they switch the primary and secondary button so at a glance you think you are performing the opposite action @darkpatterns pic.twitter.com/F0MQSIwCsg
The authors of the new study, meanwhile, have built a website to summarize their findings. They discovered 1,818 dark patterns, representing 15 different types of deceptive tactics. The more popular the shopping site was, the more likely it was to use dark patterns.
Below are some of the strangest (and most annoying) design tactics that apps and websites will use to try to coerce you into spending more money, according to the Dark Patterns team:
Have you noticed one of these dark patterns on a website you’ve recently visited? Mention @darkpatterns on Twitter or use the hashtag #darkpatterns to call out what you’ve found. Darlo and Brignull say social media engagement is a good way to put pressure on companies to stop using these deceptive practices.