Dark Patterns: Greed Powered Designs

Ever feel tricked or even insulted by a website, or even a physical store? Have you been asked to share a website on Facebook to hundreds of your closest and most trusted friends before you can even read the first paragraph of the article, do you feel the pressure to buy because the website says there’s a limited quantity, or feel guilty when dismissing a request to subscribe to a newsletter?

Then you are the victim of a dark pattern, created by immorally greedy corporations and unethical designers.

When you reach the checkout and total is far beyond what you expected, even considering any “convenience fees” shipping, and taxes that may be applied, the sticker stock that occurs is not the result of user ignorance in the price but rather dark patterns – methodically designed anti-consumer interactions designed to bilk the end user – their customer – out of a few extra bucks.

DarkPatterns.org offers explanation on many types of evil design and some examples, but doesn’t go into detail on the effects beyond the immediate negative user experience or the type of corporate philosophy that allows these vitriolic models to exist.

Discounted to Prevailing Price

While I can’t confirm that that they still do this, MeUndies use to offer a 20% coupon offer upon your first visit to the site. Great! 20% Off the [price of the] world’s greatest underwear (No, not that 20% off).

Like Elliot in Mr. Robot says, “Its good. So good, it scratched that part of my mind. The part that doesn’t allow good to exist without a condition.” and I opened up their website in an incognito window, ignoring the coupon code – surprise – the price was the same.

Noticing the dark pattern – making the user feel like they got a hefty discount while charging them full price – I applied their coupon code to the standard prices and was able to get 20% off their standard pricing. Victory dance.

This isn’t a new trick either. For years many brick and mortar stores increased pricing on products for weeks before black Friday, just to provide one day only deals that match, or are only slightly below the everyday price.

Department stores, like Kohl’s and JC Penny’s are also widely known to use similar methods, in their case, their normal prices are so high above fair market value its absolutely criminal. But every week there is some sale, for any excuse, usually 40 to 60% off, plus a coupon, plus cash back or rewards like Kohl’s cash, where the $100 dress shirt comes down to $8.79 after half a dozen discounts have been applied.

Hidden Price / Quantity

A variation of the old bait and switch, the internet has provided new ways for businesses to legally steal from their customers.

Some use hidden fees and extra markup, others push worthless warranties and upgrades on their self imposed restrictions (Premium DNS), while others still flat out lie to customers.

Godaddy, a domain register – a place where you can buy a domain name, like ILoveMyCorporateOverlords.com – caters to non-technical small business owners by convincing them they don’t need expensive developers and designers to built their own website, eCommerce store, whatever. Once they’ve succeeded in convincing a business owner of that delusion (Seriously, “site builders” website suck. Always”), they use bait and switch tactics and hidden feeds to supercharge not their customers’ site, but their own revenues.

Domain names, like .com and .net usually cost about $10, a fee regulated by the registry operator who owns and controls the Top Level Domain (TLD), with a tiny fee tacked on by ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Its not unfair to pay a bit extra when services are included – Google Domains is often $12, but includes domain privacy (optional) on all domains, while others offer higher levels of support or bundling of features.

When you add a domain (Which are purchased at a yearly rate) to the cart at Godaddy, you see the one year price, often with a promo rate that only applies to a purchase if the domain is purchased (It really is rented) for one year, but upon visiting your GoDaddy cart, the price jumps – shockingly so- as you may now be checking out for anywhere from 2 to 5 years, at the normal yearly, rate unless you reset the purchase length to the one year.

Once you get past that, you’re greeted with a plethora of additional offers you’ve never heard of (Mostly because they don’t really exist). Domain privacy protection, premium DNS, extra email forwarders, are all made up products that cost the provider basically nothing, created out of greed, not necessity, and promoted heavily to everyone, regardless of need of those services.

Negative Options / Negative Opt Out

These days, every site no matter how large or small has a newsletters, usually, which is usually shoved in front of your face every time you visit the site, regardless or any mitigating factors such as are you already subscribed, or are you even a candidate to subscribe (does the site and subscription offer something to value to you). Quite often, you can “X” out, or hit ESC to kill the indignation, but some of these modals just won’t take no for an answer. In these desperate attempts for your continued attention, sites resort sending you on a guilt rollercoaster before you’re allowed to get to the content of the site that you came for. Often these guilt trips come in the form of a small text link, which closes the modal from hell but not before you acquiesce to your fate and accept that  “No, you don’t like saving money” or “You enjoy paying full price”. Shamed, you can now continue past the vanquished pop up and proceed to be disappointed by the site, which ranked so well in Google.

Scarcity & Fake Scarcity

Act Now! Supply is Limited! Only 19 left in stock! Live countdowns. Humans fear missing out. It’s part of why we’re in the middle of a time I believe we will look back upon as the “Attention Wars” and why we can’t live without our cell phone for more than 5 minutes. And what better way to feed on this fear than by actively showing how long until you miss out.

Scarcity can be a valid selling point, but can never be the only selling point. Stating an honest fact – letting a user know how many hotel rooms, tickets are left, or that the current quantity of a product is low, is a good pattern for the business and the user, it can build trust, secure a sale and improve transparency while reducing the customer support requirement.

Where this user experience crosses the line into a dark pattern, is when the scarcity is artificially restricted, or outright falsified to create the sense of urgency. Hotels know a user is not browsing their website for 10 rooms – they’d call to arrange a group discount – so for a hotel to understate their available rooms provides no reasonable disadvantage while misleading the user to act now, and skip out on shopping around or looking for a better deal.

Online stores can be more open and honest, instead of listing “Only 19 Left in Stock!”, product listings can contain more accurate information, like will it be restocked? If so, when? Even an expected restock date or month is reasonable, and may even help increase the likelihood of a sale for users with a limited time frame.

Paying for Branding (“Apple Tax”)

An argument can be made that excessive cost added onto products for the sole purpose of supporting branding and advertising, or implying quality, is a dark pattern, or at least a dark philosophy. Many times, more than 20% of the price of a product is directly related to advertising the product – in other words, you are literally paying for the company to market their products to you so you can give them more money.

The “Apple tax” is the additional cost added to Apple products to make them appear to be higher quality then the competition, but has been used to describe similar products. Typically designer clothing and handbags, are some of the biggest perpetrators of this.

You can easily spot companies engaging in this type of brand centric marketing by looking at their ads. If the ads detail the products, specs, features, usage, usefulness, ease of use, its likely not guilty of this atrocity – advertisements from these type of companies are often a strong visual image with a brand or product name and little more than that.

Bose and Sonos are similar stories, both charge substantially higher than almost all similar products, but their products are, in at least one way, a notch or two above any competitor. Does a slightly better sound justify a 600% price increase? Well, that’s up the consumer, some will be able to tell the difference, others will enjoy their materialistic wasted money.

Samsung, specially their phones, spend so much on advertising a chunk of the price is dedicated solely to selling more galaxies in the hope that you’ll continue to buy Samsung, therefore making the lifetime value of a customer, higher.

Other companies, such as One Plus, denounce advertising fueled pricing, making as little “single figure dollar amounts” on each phone, doing very little advertising, and relying on word of mouth, free press, and a high quality product to drive sales.

And then we have the discount companies. Walmart, unknown Chinese brands, and off brands aim for the cheapskate – someone who values an item solely on its price, regardless of the quality. These companies take the other extreme, reducing price by reducing quality of their products and materials, advertising minimally, or refusing to pay fair and decent wages to their employees and employees who make the products they sell.

Next time you buy a product, consider how much of your money is being spent just to sell you that very product.

What Should I do?

I’m a designer or developer being asked to create a site with dark patterns on it?

Any upstanding designer or developer of at least somewhat decent ethical character, should make it clear to potential clients that you fight for the user, and will do your clients right, by doing right by their customers. 

The usage of dark patterns also negatively damages a company’s reputation and their potential sales, and obliterates the possibilities for returning customers. If your client still wishes to delve into dark patterns, any ethical designer should resign from the project, and make clear to them that short term profits won’t help them build a lasting relationship with customers, or vendors and partners like you.

I’m using a service or site I see employing dark patterns?

The simplest way to to stand up against Dark Patterns is to vote with your wallet – stop stopping at the store. If it’s a website that doesn’t have a store, such as news sites with negative opt outs, click the close button as soon as possible, or leave the site entirely. All of these sites and services keep some sort of analytics and if enough traffic is lost, they will be forced to change their ways.

Sharing your negative experience, especially publicly, will also go a long way. Tweet about it, just as you would leave a negative Yelp review if you were cheated on a check at a restaurant. Embrace their competition that doesn’t employ anti-consumer practices and most importantly, tell all your friends to vote with their wallets as well.

You can also report dark patterns to DarkPatterns.org.

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